Syrian Bride, The

Eran Riklis' The Syrian Bride, arguably the best Israeli film since Late Marriage and Broken Wings, represents a significant achievement on many levels, both artistic and ideological. Set on the Israeli-Syrian border, circa 2000, the film uses a wedding as a strategic event to depict a complex political situation and a wide canvas of social and personal issues.

The leftist ideological elements of The Syrian Bride, which is directed by an Israeli and co-written by a Palestinian woman, Shua Arraf, are unmistakable. Yet, the humanism that informs this Israeli-French-German co-production is ultimately far more important than its occasionally didactic and schematic aspects. The film's other novelty is its particular setting, the Druze village of Majdal Shams, occupied by Israel since the 1967 War.

By now, the wedding film has become a genre onto itself, and though The Syrian Bride is historically and politically most particular, it shares elements with other noted wedding films, from Altman's A Wedding, to Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, to Rena's Wedding, another interesting film set in Lebanon. All of these films use a single event, and the preparations for it, to introduce a large gallery of colorful characters whose lives are affected, damaged, and changed by the wedding.

The Salm family prepares for the wedding of their second-eldest daughter, Mona (Clara Khoury) to Tallel (Derar Sliman), a Syrian TV star. The two have never met; it's an arranged marriage. Early on, there is a wonderful scene, in which Mona, seeking sympathy, expresses her fears to her mother. But it turns out that her mother, too, barely knew her husband. They met only once before their engagement and then married a month later.

In the pre-credit sequence, we see the close up of a woman, Mona, who seems disturbed, and for a good reason. Mona's wedding day is the saddest day of her life, for she knows that, once she crosses the border between Israel and Syria to marry the Syrian Tallel, she will never be allowed back to her family in Majdal Shams, the Druze village in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Hammed (Makram Khoury, Clara's real-life father) is the clan's patriarch, who risks arrest if he goes to the border to see Mona off. Hammed has never forgiven his son Hattem (Eyad Sheety) for marrying a Russian woman, Evelyna (Evelyn Kaplun). Indeed, when the couple and their child arrive from Moscow, Hammed refuses to speak to them.

The relatively small family seems to be spread all over the globe. Marwan (Ashraf Barhoun), Hammed's other son, is a merchant who arrives from Italy and is interrogated at the airport for his wheeling and dealing. Marwan's girlfriend, Jeanne (Julie-Anne Roth), is a French working for the UN. Then there's the Jewish notary (Robert Hoenig), who must stamp Mona's papers, and the Syrian guard (Norman Issa), who would rather watch TV than do his routine border job.

The tale's most rational character is Mona's sister, Amal (Hiam Abbass), a modern woman who in defiance of her husband has applied to the university to study social work. Bright and open-minded, Amal is trapped in a tradition and culture she wants to break out of. The film hints at a radical alternative to the status quo through the character of Amal, who challenges the imposed borders and boundaries.

The film deals intelligently with nationalism, political unrest, sexual repression, and patriarchal domination, all forces that impinge on the family's internal dynamics and the fate of its individual members. The central concerns, though, are Family dynamics and tensions between the restricting force tradition and the invigorating power of personal realization.

Politics, which is in the background in the film's first chapters, moves into the foreground in the film's last act, which in tone approximates comedy of the absurd. The banality of the conflict and the mindless bureaucracy of the Middle East are depicted by the near-farcical attempts of a Red Cross worker to gain Israeli and Syrian co-operation for Mona's wedding day passage from the Israeli side of the border to the Syrian side.

A border movie par excellence, The Syrian Bride is about physical, mental, and emotional borders, and the risk involved in crossing them. On one level, it's a political melodrama, about one family's struggles with borders and boundaries.

Right now, once you cross the border, there is no way back. At the end, the family, the government, the military officials, and all those gathered on both sides of the border, find themselves facing an uncertain future, trapped in No-Man's Land between Israel and Syria. Yet, there's a ray of hope, and the final image is rather optimistic, depicting Amal as she walks proudly toward an unknown yet potentially promising future.

The family celebrations surrounding Mona's betrothal are tinged with an anxiety and sadness caused by the knowledge that once she crosses the border at Quneitra, Mona will not be allowed to return to her village. As the film progresses, the tensions of this particular family serve as a microcosm of the larger identity and political crisis facing the Druze and the Middle East at large.

Based on three years of traveling to the Golan Heights, the film benefits from Riklis' meeting the people, learning the history, and getting to know the political and personal situation of the Druze culture. The film takes a deeper look in to a region haunted by hostility, indifference, and bureaucracy. To explore the complex story of women torn between families, tradition, and borders, Riklis has chosen as his collaborator Palestinian writer Suha Arraf, who's well-versed in the Arab (and Druze) world, while maintaining a more progressive point of view.

The result of this professional union is a film that crisscrosses the boundary between unwarranted optimism and painful pessimism, without ever resolving the contradiction. Riklis subscribes to Palestinian writer Emile Habibi's concept of “pessoptimism,” which he sees as invaluable to an understanding of the region.

While not an overtly message film, The Syrian Bride does have a political agenda. Riklis hopes that his film will contribute towards a greater understanding, compassion, and tolerance of the Middle East conflict. “I always say that I live in Israel, but I am a filmmaker who doesn't believe in borders for films,” says Riklis.

Though some background info will help to understand better the nuanced complexities of the conflicts and situations, it's possible to understand the basic outline without such knowledge.

The Syrian Bride has been touring the world, picking up awards at European and Canadian film festivals. Among many honors, it has won the Locarno Festival's Audience Award and the Jury Prize at Montreal's World Cinema Festival. The film has now won more awards abroad than any previous Israeli movie.

This is a truly poli-lingual venture. The film's title appears in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic, and English, and the dialogue is in Druze Arabic, slangy Hebrew, Russian, and even French. Some of the actors are Palestinian-Israelis, one is a Druze (the Druze don't have a tradition of theatre and cinema), one French, and one (Abbass) is Palestinian, Israeli and French.

Born in 1954, Riklis has been making films since 1975. His first feature, the political thriller On a Clear Day You Can See Damascus, was completed upon graduation from the National Film School in Beaconsfield, England. Riklis next made the critically acclaimed Cup Final, the Israeli box-office hit Zohar, the nostalgic rock & roll film Vulcan Junction. The Syrian Bride is Riklis' most ambitious and impressive film to date.