Review

Israeli family drama 'Sand Storm' is an experience as intense as any thriller

It's set in the heart of the desert, but the disturbances of the quietly impressive "Sand Storm" rage not in the natural world but in the intimate corners of the human heart.

Also unexpected, though it won six Ophirs, its country's Oscars, including best picture, director and supporting actress, is "Sand Storm's" identity as an Israeli film.

Set in the vastness of the Negev in the southern part of the country, "Sand Storm" makes only one fleeting reference to current events and deals not at all with the knotty Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Rather, this urgent family drama, as tense as any thriller and winner of Sundance's coveted World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, takes place entirely within Israel's Bedouin community.

Writer-director Elite Zexer, whose feature debut now becomes Israel's foreign language Oscar entry, was introduced to that world more than a decade ago by her mother, who photographed there regularly. The filmmaker has said her years of contact created "an obligation to make it as real as possible."

But "Sand Storm" and its story of a mother and a daughter struggling to survive psychologically, each in her own way, in a world of masculine control indifferent to their thoughts and desires, is remarkable for much more than the authenticity of its setting.

Filmmaker Zexer, even in her first movie, reveals a fine instinct for emotional truth in the handling of life crises and other difficult material.

Her empathy for all the film's characters, even those who don't act well, is instinctive, and she is alive to the nuances of relationships, the small moments of connection between characters. She also knows enough to let silences play out, realizing that they are at least as important, if not more so, than the words they replace.

"Sand Storm's" first scene could theoretically take place almost anywhere. A father is teaching his 18-year-old daughter how to drive, she is checking her college grades on her cellphone, and he chides her when the results are not good. Several things, however, tell us that anywhere this is not.

For one thing, young Layla (Lamis Ammar) wears a hijab and her father, Suliman (Hitham Omari), has to hide the fact that he is teaching her from the other residents of their small desert village because custom forbids it. 

For another, both are headed for the wedding celebration that Suleiman's first wife,  Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour), is giving for his marriage to a much younger second wife, a wedding the cutting, acerbic Jalila is not happy about but is powerless to prevent.

"Sand Storm" is set almost exclusively in this Bedouin community where modernity and tradition, cellphones and head scarves, uneasily coexist. The one law that remains unchanged is that of patrimony, of men, even caring fathers, being willing and able to treat women as their disposable chattel.

Jalila is already in a foul mood because of the impending wedding, and her take-no-prisoner's attitude (Blal-Asfour was the deserving Ophir winner) is not improved when she realizes that her university student daughter has fallen in love with a young man.

The ferocious verbal confrontation between Jalila and Layla is not just between mother and daughter, it is a stand-off between generations, with the twin facts that the boy is from another tribe and that contact with strange men is strictly forbidden,  meaning everything to one and nothing to the other.

Jalila wants this to end immediately, but the daughter, being 18, has other ideas, which include taking her encouraging father into her confidence, something that the mother, her concern for her daughter overriding even her anger, fears will be ruinous. The complex way these relationships play out is this film's central dynamic.

"Sand Storm's" great gift is that it is human, not didactic, showing not only how difficult this iron web of culture and tradition is to escape from but also how much it poisons the lives of the men who enforce it as much as the women who are victimized by it. When this kind of a wind blows, it blinds everyone it touches.

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‘Sand Storm’

Not rated

In Arabic with English subtitles

Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes

Playing Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7, Pasadena

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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