AFI Fest 2014: Wednesday, November 12

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Day Five: Suha Arraf’s Villa Touma (2014)

In the spirit of recent posts at Krell Laboratories (“Rethinking the American Canon”) and Girls Do Film (“A Realisation…and a New Year Resolution”) on the paucity of work by women directors, and in the less lofty spirit of just getting my sh*t together already, this post is on the last AFI Festival film I saw (you know, last November), written and directed by a Palestinian woman. Each blog writer noticed she hadn’t posted much about films directed by women and made a commitment to seek out, and post about, more such films. Brava, I say. And, me too, I also say. In the thus-far short list of directors about whom I’ve written there is nary a woman to be seen. Shameful.

Both Krell Labs and Girls Do Film are engaging, well-written film blogs (Krell Labs even has a quotation from Samuel Johnson!), each covering very different territory from the other. I suggest you scoot over to at least one of them now and promise to peruse the other later. I’ll wait here.

Alrighty. As Louis CK said about an entirely different activity, “Here we go!”

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Writer and director Suha Arraf

The final film I saw at the AFI Fest was director Suha Arraf’s Villa Touma. It is a quiet film, in comparison to some of the others I saw, but no less absorbing. There are almost no men to speak of. (That’s not why I liked it so much. … Okay, maybe that’s not the only reason I liked it so much.) Most of the film stays inside a villa belonging to what’s left of the Touma family, in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. The Toumas are an old Christian family—Ramallah used to be largely Christian, and they now comprise a significant minority there. One of the neat things about Villa Touma is that the “now” of the film isn’t entirely clear. At first, it looks like the 60s or maybe the 70s. When the film eventually moves from the house to the city, it becomes clear that it’s much later than that, sometime close to now (2014), but probably not right now (2000-something).

Since the Six-Day War in 1967, the Touma family has been whittled down to three unmarried sisters, used to being respectable and upper class but now running out of money. None of them works, and being aristocratically respectable seems to mean that, as women of a certain age and background, the sisters remain decorously cut off from social life. That’s certainly what it means to the eldest sister, the implacable, imperious Juliette (Nisreen Faour), and what Juliette says, goes. villa-touma-movie-posterAnother of the sisters, Violet (Ula Tabari), was married, but so briefly it doesn’t appear the relationship was even consummated. Given that her arranged marriage was to a much older man (who inconveniently died almost immediately), Violet doesn’t miss her husband so much as she misses the status accorded a married woman. She keeps her wedding dress hung over the only mirror in her bedroom, looking at the dress rather than at herself in the mirror. The dress keeps her from facing the passage of time. But her refusal to acknowledge her reflection is also a denial of herself as a person whose life has changed since her wedding day. That dress is one of the many signs that, for Violet and her sisters, Juliette and Antoinette (Cherin Dabis), time stopped somewhere in the late 60s, when they each lost so much.

The present comes to stay in the form of the sisters’ niece, Badia (Maria Zreik) the daughter of the brother they loved…until he married a Muslim woman, shaming the family. Eighteen-year-old Badia has grown up in an orphanage. When the sisters agree to take her in, she is nervous about living among strangers, especially strangers who have as many unspoken rules as her aunt Juliette does. The list includes a refusal to discuss either of Badia’s parents. Juliette figures they can marry Badia off quickly, after outfitting her with the appropriate training—a little piano, a little French, what folks used to call comportment—and some clothes “reflecting her status.” Juliette is determined to reestablish the family’s good name (and perhaps to bring a fellow with some money into the fold). The predictable clash between an unhappy, mothballed past and a freer but equally perilous present ensues. Watching it take place, though, I was fascinated.

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Some vintage clothes are classically stylish. Some…aren’t.

Thankfully, what doesn’t happen is a series of amusing-yet-poignant episodes in which vibrant youth helps its crotchety and staid elders catch up to the present and re-learn how to enjoy life. Instead, all four women have real, intense personalities. Unlike characters in a mainstream Hollywood film (especially female characters), these women have not been diluted into kinder, gentler characters by the end of the story. They change, yes, but there are no grand epiphanies at Villa Touma. The sisters, or at least Juliette and so Violet and Antoinette by default, remain bound to some traditional ideas about what sort of behavior is acceptable for women, especially unmarried, aristocratic women. And so, the ending the audience wants for these women doesn’t come to pass, at least not all of it. It is sad in a very real way, without being terribly depressing. One does not leave the theater (or couch) feeling like the world is an awful place and human beings a plague upon it. Neither would I call the film “a darkly comic fable” as the NY Times did, but it has many moments of humor.

PageImage-531262-5249353-photo2copy5Rather, Villa Touma is a film that offers its audience the time and visual space not just to appreciate each actress’s performance but to notice those performances in ways we often can’t in “bigger” films—films in which there’s more plot to get through, or expensive effects or locations by which we need to be impressed. The soundtrack in this film is often simply ambient noise—and Villa Touma, as you might expect, is a pretty quiet place. The space of the house is shot in ways that invite you to notice how dated the tasteful decor is, and how the sisters move through the house as if parts of it are somehow off-limits, already wrapped up and packed away. The characters interact with the space in ways that are both graceful and telling, and the women are often arranged in forms that suggest the embrace of a tradition both nurturing and stifling. Some of this blocking is repeated over the course of the film, sometimes with the same shot set-up, sometimes from different perspectives. The ritual of eating meals and taking tea together is perhaps the most important of these; it provides the audience with a subtle calibration of the shifting ground under the Touma women’s feet.

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Suha Arraf and Cherin Dabis, the writer, director, and now actress who plays Antoinette, the youngest of the sisters, were present at the AFI screening in November. One of the topics Arraf discussed is the dispute between herself and various Israeli state agencies over what nationality the film is given when presented at festivals. Arraf insists the film is Palestinian, but the Israeli economy minister, the Israeli Film Fund, and the Israel State Lottery beg to differ. They are demanding that Arraf return what amounts to something over half a million dollars to these various institutions that provided funding for the film. It looks like there hasn’t been a resolution yet, unless it just hasn’t been reported. Villa Touma premiered at the 2014 Venice Film Festival as Palestinian. According to The Hollywood Reporter, at screenings in Toronto and London, the film remained nation-less.

From the admittedly little I know about the situation, it seems petty for the various funding institutions to demand their money back. It’s not like Villa Touma is the next Gone with the Wind; I suspect most of that money is simply gone. And, more to the point, presumably Arraf was given the funding based on some description of the story, if not an actual script. If that is the case, these funders knew the characters were Palestinians, were speaking Arabic, that it would be a “Palestinian story.” What, other than political points, is to be gained by labeling the film Israeli? There’s an interview with Arraf about the film here. And an earlier NY Times story here.

The Hollywood Reporter, by the way, described the film as stodgy and the performances as wooden, noting that festival audiences are more likely to be “generous” in their assessments. I can’t agree with any of those statements—slow and deliberate is not necessarily stodgy, the performances were vibrating with life, and festival audiences are often snootier than the snootiest professional critic. Sometimes you just want to punch the two dudes standing in line in front of you at festival screenings, those guys who are loudly making it clear they really appreciated, on an intellectual level, the most broadly offensive film at the festival. Or who are busy dissing the most controversial film there as bourgeois. (They’re almost always dudes, and they’re always in front of you because they got there first, the longer to stand in a line that advertises how ahead of the curve they are.)

Villa Touma is still on the festival circuit and scheduled to be at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival at the end of this month (January 2015). This is Arraf’s first fiction feature, but her other screenwriting credits, Lemon Tree (2008) and The Syrian Bride (2004), are both available on disc via Netflix, and Lemon Tree is available for rent on Amazon Prime. There are clips of both on Hulu+.

British Empire in Film Blogathon: “The Heart of the Matter” (1953)

This post is my hopelessly late contribution to the excellent British Empire in Filml_47066_ebf103e2 Blogathon (thank you, crippling four-day migraine). Go check out some of the other fine entries! When you’re done reading this one, of course.

George More O’Ferrall’s The Heart of the Matter is an adaptation of Graham Greene’s wonderful 1948 bummer of a novel of the same name. As a representation of colonial Sierra Leone, where the whole story takes place, it isn’t especially illuminating…except of course for the marked absence of black characters or local events impinging on the plot in any way. On the one hand, it’s not a bad adaptation of the novel—it does a fine job of preserving what is arguably the core of the novel, that is, Scobie’s struggle to do right by his Catholicism in the context of his extramarital affair (and, er, British imperialism). On the other hand, the film has chosen to eliminate any of Greene’s meditation on colonialism or race, which is, in the novel, intimately tied to the narrative of Scobie’s Catholicism. (For instance, in the film, Scobie has an affair with a young white woman, Helen. The novel’s Scobie has an affair with a Sierra Leonean woman, who is, naturally, black.) I try not to judge movies based on how well they do something they weren’t trying to do in the first place. It’s hard, though, to forgive a movie set in colonial Sierra Leone with a colonial policeman as its protagonist that isn’t interested in either of those things. Of course, to act as though those things go without saying is a very colonial attitude. And take a look at the film’s poster with its realistic representation of the white characters and the anonymous, stylized natives below them.

The fine Trevor Howard plays Henry Scobie, a colonial police officer in Sierra Leone during World War II. Howard is a strong argument for watching this film. Conveying the internal struggle of someone wrestling with questions of eternal damnation and the suffering of others is no small achievement and he does a remarkable job. Being properly British, Scobie isn’t given to displays of emotion but we can tell, even when his face goes stony, that he is suffering. Scobie’s stiff-upper-lippiness is in stark contrast to his wife, Louise. Played by Elizabeth Allan in a thankless role, she is shrewish and unstable, partly as a result of the being ostracized by the colonial community. Mostly she’s just unlikeable.

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Scobie being importuned by wife Louise.

Greene’s protagonist is filled with a sense of duty motivated by the pity he feels for others—his wife, the young woman with whom he starts an affair, the law he’s charged with upholding. This is a familiar theme for Greene. It is the motor that drives the hero in his novel Ministry of Fear, a characteristic which does not show up in the Fritz Lang’s film version (which I wrote about here). It’s nice to see somebody take the Greene malaise seriously. At the beginning of the film Scobie is already in the unenviable position of being married to someone whom he doesn’t love and who makes him miserable and, because he’s Catholic, someone he cannot divorce. (I do wish people would stop misspelling cannot as can not.) Scobie believes he is responsible for the unpleasant person Louise has become. In order to fulfill his sense of obligation to her, he borrows money from an unscrupulous Algerian trader Yusef, so that she can travel to South Africa. Yusef (Gérard Oury) is almost as interestingly complex as Scobie. He is a product of French colonialism and, though he is the closest thing to a villain here, we sense there is a corner of him that wishes he weren’t so corrupt. That corner wants to be Scobie’s friend. There’s an excellent shot of Scobie returning to his bungalow, where Yusef is waiting for him. The staging makes Yusef an unseemly bump in Scobie’s path to the better person he so desperately wants to be, the corruption that spreads itself out over everything in Scobie’s life.

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Publicity still of Helen (Maria Schell) and Scobie (Trevor Howard)

Scobie is convinced that he is responsible for his wife’s misery and for the misery of the woman he truly loves, his mistress, Helen (Maria Schell, sister of actor Maximilian Schell). When Louise, a practicing but less conflicted Catholic, insists Scobie accompany her to Mass, Scobie is faced with a theological dilemma. If he goes to Mass and accepts communion without having confessed, i.e., in a state of mortal sin, he damns himself for eternity. If he doesn’t accompany Louise, she will know something is wrong. Neither can he simply confess his transgression. For his confession to be absolved, Scobie must truly mean it when he promises to stop committing adultery. Otherwise, he remains a mortal sinner. Because Scobie can’t stand the idea of adding to his wife’s misery by exposing her to his affair, he is literally damned either way.

One of the triumphs of Greene’s writing, and, I think, Howard’s acting, is that we sympathize with a character whose deepest-held beliefs are ones we likely don’t share. Indeed, Scobie’s actions may seem unfathomable in their unnecessary self-destructiveness. Partly this is an effect of making Scobie such a sincere and devout Catholic. Howard makes us believe that Scobie’s doomed attempts to live up to his God are necessary, for him. He never expects anyone else to live up to his strict Catholicism—it is his belief, not others’. He believes he is causing others to suffer, and that if he does “the right thing,” he will be able to ameliorate their suffering. It’s the paradox of a kind of magical thinking: the arrogance of believing we have magical power over things we can’t control combined with the selflessness of someone overwhelmed by pity for those around him.

There are some wonderful, less miserable moments in the film, as when Scobie reads to a boy rescued from a torpedoed ship in the British hospital. Scobie is provided a morally uplifting book titled A Bishop among the Bantus: Twenty-five Years in Africa. The boy, who, like many children, has very firm ideas about how the story should go, inspires Scobie to some artistic license so as not to disappoint him.

“Is it a murder story?” the boy asks hopefully. Scobie offers him the title, claiming that Bishop is the name of the hero.

“But you said A Bishop.” Honestly, the child is remarkably alert given that he’s been floating on wreck off the coast of West Africa for forty days.

trevor1“Yes,” Scobie pauses. “His name was Arthur.”

“What a soppy name.”

“Yes, but then he’s a soppy hero.”

“Heros aren’t soppy,” the boy insists.

“The real heroes are the Bantus.”

“What are Bantus?”

“They’re a ferocious gang of pirates.”

“Does Arthur Bishop pursue them?

“Yes, he’s a secret agent. He—er—dresses up as a seaman and he—er—sails away on a merchantman so that he can be captured by the Bantus, and he discovers all their secret hiding places so that when the time is right, he can betray them.”

“He sounds a bit of a cad.”

“He is. And you know he falls in love with daughter of the captain of the Bantus. That’s when he turns soppy. But there are bags of murders before then,” he assures his now-eager audience, and proceeds to invent a suspenseful yarn about Arthur Bishop pursuing Blackbeard, the Bantu.

It is during this moment of freedom from worry and spiritual conflict that Scobie seems the most himself. It’s no accident that this is also the moment he meets Helen, another rescued passenger, who falls in love with him. I wouldn’t mind Trevor Howard reading me bedtime stories, either, especially if they’re filled with bags of murders and ferocious pirates.

The film also offers an impossibly young and slick—and unlikeable!—Denholm Elliott.

The film also offers an impossibly young and slick—and unlikeable!—Denholm Elliott.

The film uses only ambient sound, so all the music in the film is local to Sierra Leone. It’s quite wonderful and there’s a fair bit of it. Something else in the film from Sierra Leone is John Akar, who plays Scobie’s valet, Ali, the only black part with anything resembling character development. Akar would later become Director of Broadcasting in Sierra Leone.  In case you’re wondering, as I was, Sierra Leone achieved independence in 1961.

The movie is streaming free on Amazon Prime and definitely worth a watch.

Don’t forget to read more of the British Empire in Film Blogathon posts!