The following is one of the entries from my list of the 100 greatest films (through 2006) from Africa, Latin America & the Caribbean, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
We were taught one rule: Silence.
The death of an ex-bey who may have been her father brings Alia to the palace where she grew up in the 1950s. Tunisian filmmaker Moufida Tlatli creates a masterful blend of Alia’s own flashback and a more generalized and objective reclamation of the recent past touching on Alia’s life. Intermittently returning to the present ten years later, the film’s richly detailed, solemnly paced backward look focuses on young Alia and her mother, Khedija, one of the poor downstairs servants and a favorite, because of her beauty, in upstairs bedrooms. Eventually both Khedija and infant die in childbirth, orphaning Alia, who never learns her father’s identity.
A Twainian coincidence of births, Alia’s and the palace’s legitimate daughter, who is her playmate, has given Alia a precarious existence in two worlds. Khedija (Amel Hedhili, superb) worries that her teenaged daughter, as she has been, will be impressed into sexual slavery. Tlatli portrays the supportive community of women downstairs, but something else exists above. When Khedija is serving dinner, she is rebuked—an index of female discontent: fallout from the interest that she generates in the princely men. Upstairs women dare not speak against their husbands, so they take everything out on Khedija—an arrangement the men, guilty cowards, tolerate. For women, it appears, silence is the rule both downstairs and up.
With withering irony all this occurs as nationalists beyond palace walls rattle the French colonial cage for independence. The bey, we are told, gets flak from both sides: from the French, for listening to nationalists; from nationalists, for ceding to the French. Someone observes, “There are no strong men in the palace anymore.”
Samt el qusur views the oppression of women with profound melancholy. Tlatli is an Arab woman.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.