2008-02-28 23:35:39 ET|
I don't know much about Middle Eastern film. I've seen a few here and there, but nowhere near enough to make an informed opinion. I know nothing about Sufist film, because possibly, as a genre, it doesn't exist. Here is a film that is Middle Eastern (and North African) and Sufist, and I have to say it's pretty good.
Bab'Aziz (Parviz Shahinkhou) is a blind old man on his way to a meeting of dervishes. He doesn't know where it is, but has a Zen-like belief that if he keeps walking he'll find them. His granddaughter Ishtar (Maryam Hamid) is keeping him company. To help pass the time, he tells her the story of a prince (the one who contemplates his soul and an entirely different person from Bab'Aziz, no matter what the title implies). Along the way they meet various other people, some of whom contribute their own stories, "Canterbury Tales"-style, and others who go off on their own adventures that the movie follows.
I try not to overuse the word "beautiful," but here it is: this movie is beautiful. You can take literally any screenshot and submit it to a fine arts photography exhibit. It's unclear where exactly the movie takes place (presumably Tunisia or Iran, since that's where it was filmed), but it comes off as exotic and gorgeous, with stark deserts, dusty ancient cities, and the occasional oasis. I've heard several comparisons made between this movie and "1,001 Nights", and stylistically it's spot on. This movie looks like the images those stories conjure up. It's apparently set in the present day, so the occasional bus or motorcycle shows up, but even that seems to underline the sense of tradition and continuity. The same goes for the music. It's all very traditional, yet enthralling and surprisingly upbeat. I don't know if they released a soundtrack, but I'd gladly buy it.
The cast is uniformally good. Shahinkhou as the grandfather is immediately likeable (as wise old men with turbans and thick long beards tend to be in these types of stories), radiating a sense of slightly mischievous wisdom. While Hamid as Ishtar is a little iffy on a few of her line deliveries, she nails her role physically. Whatever part of the world you're in, kids are kids, and we see it in her. Each of the character parts, from the madman seeking his princess at the bottom of a well to the poetry competition champion searching for a lost love, are written and performed well. It's really an ensemble piece, and there are no weak links. Also credit needs to be given for what could possibly be the cutest kitten ever committed to screen. He's only in a couple scenes and almost never the focal point, but I'm not afraid to say he made me melt a little.
The main theme of this movie is searching. Whether it's searching for a dervish meeting, or true love, or the man who killed your brother, every character is searching for something. It would be easy to write it off as a metaphor for enlightenment or meaning or something ethereal, but I think that's missing the point. It's partly that, but partly more concrete, like the objects of search really should be taken (at least partially) at face value. The simple act of travelling has been celebrated in many stories; this movie seems to be doing the same with the act of searching. I'm not a Sufist, but I think that is an interesting idea, and pretty deep.
Anyway, I highly recommend this movie, for all of the above reasons. Definitely one of the best I've seen so far this year.