Politics so comprehensively saturates Israeli life that even the most apolitical Israeli film ends up invoking it, if only by assiduous omission. In “The Syrian Bride,” opening November 16 in New York, Israeli director Eran Riklis not only acknowledges the elephant in the room but also gives it central billing. Ironically, he ends up with one of the most apolitical Israeli films in recent years.
The story unfolds in a single day in 2000 in Majdal Shams, a large Druze village on the Syrian border that, to the great despair of its aggressively pro-Syrian inhabitants, became Israeli after the 1967 War. Bashar al-Assad has just replaced his deceased father as the Syrian president, and the men of Majdal Shams embark on a demonstration of support.
Among them is Hammed (Makram J. Khoury), a recently released political prisoner who violates the terms of his parole to march with his neighbors. But Hammed’s mind is on a more private affair: Later in the day, his daughter, Mona (played by Khoury’s real-life daughter, Clara Khoury), is supposed to marry a Syrian man.
In this part of the world, though, there’s no such thing as a private affair. Riklis — and Suha Arraf, his Palestinian co-screenwriter — means this literally. Because Syria continues to contest Israeli ownership of the Golan Heights, the formerly Syrian citizens of villages like Majdal Shams live with “undefined” nationality. Those who travel to Syria, as Mona must, cannot return. To ennoble her family with a Syrian marriage, Mona must leave it forever.
The bureaucratic logistics are no less byzantine. With the groom on the Syrian side and Mona across a stretch of no man’s land on the edge of Israel, a Red Cross representative must shuttle between border functionaries on both sides to obtain mutually satisfactory exit and entrance permissions before she can cross.
This would be farcical if it weren’t so grim. But even in this place, ordinary life continues, with its squabbles and aspirations, and for a while it seems as if Riklis and Arraf mean to rescue a personal story from the totalitarianism of Middle Eastern politics. Hammed, already despondent at being prohibited by the Israelis from following Mona to the border, must keep his son, Hattem (Eyad Sheety), who has been excommunicated by village elders for marrying a non-Druze, away from the wedding. If Hammed doesn’t, then he, too, will be disowned. The fiercely insular Druze tend to have equally little patience for female ambition; Mona’s sister, Amal (the great Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass), has been deferring an interest in social work for years at the insistence of her husband and, less explicitly, the village hierarchy.
Though the film is named after Mona, the bride spends most of it smoldering in silent, static anxiety. Amal, who gradually becomes emboldened enough to defy village convention, is the more startling sight; occasionally Abbass’s eyes broadcast such a shattering resolve as to make land disputes, political intrigue and war seem trifling by comparison.
For the most part, however, the domestic contretemps turn out to be ciphers. For instance, Hattem defies his father and attends the wedding, but the elders don’t show, so their threat turns out to be moot. In the end, this is a political story, the day to be determined not by family disputes but by the machinations at the border.
Riklis depicts these maneuvers ingeniously. In the same way that personal gestures can’t help their political ballast in this part of the world, the political rituals are so ubiquitous — so quotidian — as to have become entirely divested of brinksmanship. The indifferent border guards on both sides pry open their gates with half-opened eyes; customs officials proceed with mechanical lassitude through visa rituals that hold lives in the balance, their faces straying to corner televisions or to calls from home. Riklis gives us the banality behind the high stakes in the news.
His suggestion is that the Israelis and Syrians might have something in common, after all. After the Israeli exit stamp proves unacceptable to the Syrian border commander, and the Red Cross representative pleads with both to consult their superiors, phones ring emptily in Jerusalem and Damascus alike — bureaucracy is universal, and 4 p.m. is quitting time no matter what you believe in. It’s hard to imagine a recent film that presents a more nuanced portrait of Israelis and Arabs, of Jews and Druze, of their equal capacity for heartlessness and generosity.
Still, with no superiors to resolve a deadlock that threatens to stigmatize Mona — according to Druze custom, a wedding that fails to take place is a curse on the bride — it falls to a transcendent act of grace to undo the impossible knots. As much as both sides may expect it to appear from above — be that source divine or political — perhaps it’s no surprise that it comes from an ordinary person, and from the most human of gestures.