Monday, May 26, 2014

The Source

I can't say I'd come across the 2011 film The Source before, and there don't seem to be many English-language reviews of it online. It's directed by Radu Mihăileanu, a Jewish Romanian-born French director who also wrote the script in collaboration with two French writers. It has more than one title: as you can see from the poster, it's called La Source des Femmes, (The Source of/for Women) but the poster on IMDB names it La Sorgente dell'Amore, which translates as The Source of Love. All are equally valid: there is dialogue in the film in which the source of or for women is discussed, and also the source of love, that is, where does love come from - the answer in the film is pretty much, from women, although that's not the whole story. 
But there's a further aspect to the word, source: in the movie the starting point for the story is the spring up on the hillside to which the women must go each day with their buckets to collect water. This water is the source of life - especially in the drought-stricken time in which the movie takes place - and its place far up on the hill is another source: a source of contention. The women argue that their menfolk (who sit around most of the day doing nothing because the drought has destroyed their crops and livestock) should take the money gained from passing tourists and use it to put a tap from the spring right within the village. The men are loathe to - among many reasons is the one that women should know their place, and if they only had to go to the water in the village, what else would they do with their time? 
One of the women, an outsider, whose husband (a much more kindly and gentle man than most in the village) has taught her to read and write, begins a sex strike, and this has ramifications for all concerned. The story is an old one - the bawdy Greek comedy, Lysistrata, is one of the oldest known versions of it - but Mihăileanu and his team have set it in a remote North African village where Islam is the dominating force, and where men have license to beat their wives (just as one would beat children, gently, to discipline them, says the local Imam), and to demand sex nightly, if they're so inclined. And where teenage girls are frequently thrown into marriage without any instruction or care. 
Unlike Aristophanes' play, the comedy is minimal (though the film is billed as a drama/comedy) and there are some vicious beatings, fights, slappings and the like. People's passions run high here, and no some seems immune from a good slap across the face. 
But the story has more to say than just bringing harmony back between husbands and wives - harmony does return, as you'd expect, but at considerable cost. There is the much bigger issue of Islam itself, which pervades the lives of the people alongside elements of folk religion. Though these people are Arabs, they've been in this part of the world a very long time. 
The gentle husband talks at one point of the Islamic Enlightenment. If there's such a thing, it's got very stony ground in which to grow in in this village, and at the film's end it's debatable as to whether it's made much progress. Certainly there's an important scene in which the educated wife fronts up to the Imam with great respect, and counters his views of how husbands and wives should behave by quoting back the Koran to him with great confidence. He's shaken by having a woman stand up to him, but, to his credit, does listen, and reflect on it. 
In spite of the male domination aspect, this is a film where women have the focus. They sing at the beginning and at the end (the film is almost a musical at times - some of the story is told in song, and some of the interactions between men and women, or women and women, take place in musical terms), they have two other wonderful scenes in which what they're singing is exactly what the men don't want to hear, and which publicly embarrasses them. and they have a scene in their bathhouse (where there is some nudity on display) in which they discuss sex quite openly as well as the prospect of a sex-strike. Women's talk may embarrass men, but the women aren't embarrassed by it - the group song early in the piece is quite forthright in this regard. 
Love is a big theme throughout - it's seldom mentioned by the men, except in terms of disparagement - but for the women it's a thing to hold onto dearly; if it can be received and given it's priceless. The educated couple at the centre of the movie celebrate love, even when it also seems to make their lives more complicated (a man the girl had loved previously turns up to make things difficult), and several of the women long for love but have never received it, including one who gets the educated women to write letters for her to a man she loves, named, somewhat improbably, Slim
At times the wealth of subplots almost gets in the way of the focus of the story (one scene, in which one of the young husbands tells the educated man just how much he hurt him when he treated him as a lesser person, seems to be going somewhere and then doesn't) but Mihăileanu holds it all in place somehow, and makes the film all the more rich for all its different elements. It could have been a diatribe against Islam and its treatment of women; it could have been political (there are a few elements of this); it could have been primarily a love story. It's all these and more.
And what a cast: Algerian Leila Bekhti is wondrous as the educated wife; her husband is played by Palestinian actor, Saleh Bakri, who manages to overcome the occasional inconsistencies in his role. The older women have faces that never came from any Hollywood movie (some of them may be non-professionals). Israeli actress Hiam Abbass plays the vicious mother-in-law with an underlying fury - justified, we learn in due course, but terrifying all the same. Biyouna, who has a face of considerable ugliness (but happens to be a great star in her native Algeria) plays the aging widow who encourages, provokes, and generally manages to keep her finger in several pies at once. This international cast - it also includes several French-born actors - speak and sing in Arabic throughout, and it's more satisfying than having them dubbed (though the film was dubbed into French for the French!)
The Source is a revelation: for one, a look at an area of the Arab world in which terrorists have no obvious presence; a picture of Islam in which jihad is mentioned but in a totally different context; and much more. The Dunedin Public Library has a copy.





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