Two very different movies from the Middle East were screened at the ongoing Venice Film Festival.
Cherian Dabis’ May in the Summer (after her distinguished Amreeka) is a lighthearted drama about a 50-something mother and her three daughters. Apart from the gripping performance of Hiam Abbass (as ever) who plays the distraught mother – separated from her husband of 20 years, who has taken a younger woman from India, Ritu Singh Pandey (!), and also unsure of her eldest New York-based daughter, May, all set to marry a Muslim – the movie gets director Dabis to step before the camera for the first time. She plays May, a conventional woman who comes to Amman to get married, but appears to be developing cold feet. In any case, her mother, a devout Christian, does not think that the guy is right for May.
May in the Summer is often a hilarious take on girls and their many anxieties. May herself is a successful author, and when the film begins, she is about to write a novel set in the 1940s Palestine. But as the marriage approaches – the would-be husband is a respected American Academic -- May starts to dither.
There are sub-plots galore. May’s younger sisters, Dalia and Yasmine, are on their own trips, and what shocks all three is when they find that their mother is up to her own little trick. Adding to this is May’s own attraction for a local Jordanian.
May in the Summer may be breezy with a few roadblocks on the way, but somewhere it fails to connect with the viewer, leaving him/her a trifle dissatisfied with the conclusions offered.
The other movie, Bethlehem by Israeli helmer Yuval Adler, is a tense work which unfolds on the streets of the city, a street-view (as one writer described) of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Here the “war” is fought between a young Palestinian, who is hired as a spy, and an Israeli intelligence officer.
"People are going crazy for this film," Adler said in a recent interview. "A lot of people say to us, even young people, that `This is the first time I see a movie that doesn't preach to me, that doesn't take sides, that doesn't show us as bad or them as bad.'"
The reception for the film has been amazing in Israel, though it is yet to screen in Bethlehem.
Despite the wide coverage of the animosity between the two groups, the film finds gap to tell a new story. Which is how Israel recruits Palestinians to serve as spies. Bethlehem goes even further, and it draws an extremely moving portrait of a relationship between an Israeli agent and a young Palestinian informant, a boy really, who eventually is thrown into a dilemma. Razi is the agent and Safur is the spy and whose brother is a Palestinian militant leader. The film etches the relationship between Razi and Safur, in what looks like a father-son tie.
Bethlehem turns out to be a neat thriller, and presents a picture which is admirably fair to both sides. "That is the heart, the key thing we wanted to explore in this movie, the duality that is so intense," Adler said.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the 70th Venice Film Festival for Hindustan Times.)