Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Garden of Film: "Inheritance"

The film is set in Lebanon. The writing on the screen says "another war" has broken out between Israel and Lebanon. The members of the big Palestinian family at the center of the story dress entirely like Westerners. Most of the time it looks like they're in Florida; floral patterns, light-colored clothing, too much sun. Nobody wears a head scarf; none of the women cover their hair in any fashion. The only scene in which modest dress is an issue comes when a mother vetoes a tight bare-shoulders dress her teenage daughter wishes to wear to her sister's wedding; the same interaction could take place in the US or anywhere else. And in this border country village in the Northern Galilee you can't tell who's Muslim and who's Christian.
            All this makes "Inheritance" a perfect movie for Americans to see because so many of the superficial button-pushing symbols are absent. We saw it as part of  the Palestinian Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, one of the cultural delights of the fall season. One final superficial observation about the meaninglessness of appearances: in this film all the Palestinian men look Jewish.
            This said, "Inheritance" is a film about family relationships in a traditional society under cultural pressure from Western influence. It's not a film about war in the Middle East, but the war is real and makes everything in daily life harder. A business man can't get a loan; his workers leave a building site to go home to their families because jet planes are screaming by overhead on their way to drop bombs in Lebanon. Sometimes rockets fall too near the family's village in the borderland between the warring parties and everybody scrambles.
            Because the people in the film look and for the most part act just like us when the family's patriarch insists that the marriage of one of his daughters go on as planned, the reality of war has more sting than depictions of foreign disasters "over there" ordinarily do. That could be any of us panicking to get our loved ones into the car in a jammed-up parking area to race off to someplace we think is safe when rocket fire begins shaking the earth.
            The wedding scene, the film's set piece, is worth the price of admission alone. The family's youngest daughter, torn between her love for her family and desire to "live her own life " and travel in the West doesn't want to go, but nevertheless is dropped off at the wedding party by her English lover into the hands of her "protector," the cousin who wants to marry her. The cousin, who (other family members point out) "speaks perfect English" tries in a sensitive, non-bullying way to ask her about this English boyfriend. Her older brother, the over-extended businessman, takes the opposite tack, calling her a slut and saying he will kill her to protect the family honor while the wedding band makes merry. Everyone else, including the father she loves, warns her that if she follows her own path she will lose her family.
            Meanwhile, the "good" traditional, likable sister is modeling the satisfactions of sticking with the family. Everyone joins in the ritual dances in a natural, unstudied way, enjoying the sense of knowing who they are and valuing their place in the world. Everyone in this lighthearted but profound moment knows they belong. The scene feels completely unstaged -- everything else, as the saying goes, is for mastercard.  
            Meanwhile number two, however, the politician brother who's running for mayor slips off for an adulterous tryst.
            And then rockets start landing and a couple hundred guests rush to their cars in a panic to try to flee.
            The war the film intentionally fails to name -- in order to broaden the relevance of its story and avoid particular political circumstances -- is the 2006 "July war" when Israel bombed throughout Lebanon in response to Hezbollah's capture of a single Israeli soldier. The film, the directorial debut of Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, avoids politics in the narrow sense to treat deeper, everyday issues. Should we keep our children home, safe in the old ways, even though opportunities are few and some at least wish to fly away to "live their own lives" with the freedom the products of fortunate backgrounds enjoy in the West?
            All the portrayals, even the settings, are shaded. The main character's eldest sister lives with a do-nothing husband who pretends to drive a taxi cab but finds no business. But whenever we see her, she is enjoying the shade of her beautiful semi-tropical garden.
            A good movie has that quality. However stressful and challenging its subject, the truth of art has its balm, its solace.