Comparisons will inevitably be drawn between two recent movies set in the Middle East, and for once some will be well taken and useful. The films are both Palestinian and in different though related ways mercilessly depict the madness of macabre non sequitur that rules the daily lives of their people living in Jerusalem.
The first, Elia Suleiman's drolly effective Divine Intervention: A Chronicle of Love and Pain, was screened in 2002 at Lincoln Center and has gone on to impressive critical and popular success. Screened three months ago, as part of Lincoln Center's Annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival, and more recently at Cinema Village, Rana's Wedding (El Qods Fee Yom Akhar; literally, Jerusalem, Another Day) is more straightforward in its storytelling -- indeed, the other, earlier of the two depends on a mosaic of characters, of intertwining vignettes, rather than linear plot -- but works out against the same physical backdrop of unrelieved dull beige land-and cityscape. Both films rely on Freud's irony of gallows humor as a means of psychological survival in an atmosphere of a prisoner mentality of roadblocks, military occupation and prohibitions.
More devastatingly pointed in its black humor, more unusual in its non-story plot and blessed with the deadpan Suleiman himself as actor, Divine Intervention is the better movie, but this does not detract from the general effectiveness of Rana's Wedding, which takes one single complication and runs it (for too long) through a series of similar difficulties to close, unfortunately, with a too blatant political message. Director Hany Abu-Assad's second full-length feature -- in addition to past documentaries and shorts, he has also been a writer, producer and line producer -- begins shortly after Rana's widower father's (Zuher Fahoum) decision to relocate to Egypt. The seventeen-year-old daughter (Clara Khoury) wakes up to find she has less than twelve hours in which to marry someone from an approved list or else leave East Jerusalem, too.
Defying Islamic law, the Chariaa, from dawn onwards the girl runs throughout the city and makes frantic cell phone calls to locate her Ramallah theater-director boyfriend Khalil (Khalifa Natour), whom she hopes to convince her father to accept as unlisted groom. But a civil registrar (Walid Abed Elsalam) must be found, too, and documents and a wedding dress secured, the hairdresser visited, a reception arranged, and, even with the parent's consent, all concerned parties must somehow be brought together. And this before four o'clock, in a city of armed riot police and soldiers, strife and demonstrations, forced building demolitions and bullets, Molotov cocktails and thrown stones, road controls and document checks.
In such an unimaginable environment, routine details of life go on side by side with the absolutely absurd. Against a non-touristy city (only a fleeting shot of the Dome of the Rock mosque) devoid of pedestrians and seen as sterile, narrow streets or dusty West Bank automobile graveyards, most everything is reduced to overexposed dun color. Only friend Ramzy's (Ismael Dabbag) temperamental VW Beetle and Rana's three-quarter-sleeve shirt (for some reason, switched back-to-front in mid-stream) really stand out in color.
In this insane colorless world of relative silence punctuated by machines and toy-sounding shots, Rana does not talk much, either, as a stoical expression veils the emotions beneath. Outwardly, at least, her composure breaks only two times, once into tears on Khalil's shoulder under the glare of a surveillance camera, and in a final triumphant smile. The rock she throws earlier is an unreflecting gesture, although the isolated "mobile" phone bit with jumpy armed men is well realized.
This Middle Eastern world is filled with the dream madness of fear, misunderstanding and overreaction, fragmented into segments which appear to have no logical connection one to another. The heroine's search for her lover and her wedding, her drive to control who and what she is, give what coherence there can be to this otherwise most unfortunate of nations in which individual happiness, perhaps, is all that one can now envision and hope to achieve.
(Released by Arab Film Distribution; not rated by MPAA.)