A Tunisian family drama quietly devastates

A breathtaking debut album and a piercing experience, the Tunisian drama “A Son” by Mehdi Barsaoui stands on its own while remembering the work of acclaimed authors like Iranian director Asghar Farhadi.

The two filmmakers explore the morality of a script from all angles, testing our hypotheses and resisting the urge to present characters as mere heroes or villains. Unlike Oscar nominated Farhadi, Barsaoui (who also wrote the screenplay) has never directed a feature film before. If this was his fifth film, it would be an impressive accomplishment. Like his first, it’s remarkable.

The story begins in 2011 with an outdoor party organized by Fares (Sami Bouajila, “Days of Glory”) for his wife, Meriem (Najla Ben Abdallah). The couple and their friends are so happy, and the setting of the park so beautiful, that you can’t help but feel a ominous shadow hovering in the distance. Although revelers are bathed in light, the rumbles of Middle Eastern politics and a recent Tunisian revolution surround their bubble. Indeed, as the family crosses the picturesque landscape of Tataouine (yes, the one that inspired George Lucas), they are caught in a terrifying rebel shootout that seriously injures their 10-year-old son, Aziz (Youssef Khemiri).

Another shattering shock awaits them at the hospital, delivered with sorry discomfort by Dr Dhaoui (Noomen Hamda). Aziz needs a liver transplant to survive, and according to Tunisian law, only blood relatives can freely donate an organ. But somehow, neither parent is compatible.

From this difficult discovery, all of the adults – Fares and Meriem, but also Dr. Dhaoui and Mr. Chokri (Slah Msadek), a black market organ donor – fall back on their own stories. Barsaoui does not handle this like most filmmakers would, by separating them, telling us a story or following their individual paths. Instead, he manipulates each thread as lightly as possible, braiding them in and out so that we can see how the smallest actions and emotions of one person make an indelible impact on the rest.

The other main character, mentioned several times, is “the law”. Free will is shaped, distorted, and often destroyed by faceless humans who decide how their fellow citizens will live, both by virtue of legal obligations and social mores. Fares is as unlucky as Meriem, but even though her son is dying, she must bear the added burden of judgment, firing, and double standards. Bouajila, one of the most famous French actors, won a Caesar for his performance in childbirth. But Ben Abdallah, little known outside his native Tunisia, is just as remarkable.

Very often, the heavier the material, the heavier the hand that shapes it. “One Son” is unusual in that all that is unsaid and yet clearly understood. The overwhelming impacts of politics, patriarchy, religion and culture are pervasive but rarely recognized. Notions of liberalism and modernity, especially in the Middle East, are anatomized without conclusion. A jarring plot straight out of a horror movie is told through quick looks that change before we even catch our breath.

Antoine Héberlé’s camera looks at Fares, Meriem and Aziz closer and closer, even as they move away, and move away from each other. Shot in anamorphosis, with long silent scenes supported only by the haunting score of Amin Bouhafa, there is not a spare word nor a wasted image in the 92 minutes of duration. It must be said that this is by no means an easy watch. But it would be fair to speak of revelation.

“A Son” opens in New York and Chicago on December 10 and in Los Angeles on December 17.

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