Moufida Tlatli's exquisite, compelling "The Silences of the Palace" takes us into the enclosed world of women in a powerful, elderly bey's vast estate in Tunisia.
The film opens in the mid-1960s, flashing back a decade earlier, just as Tunisia was on the verge of wresting its independence from France, which had made it a protectorate in 1883. Apart from the chaos brewing well beyond palace walls, the film could be just as easily set in the 1850s as the 1950s, which is very much to its point.
It is a confident and striking directorial debut for Tlatli, who edited the recent and memorable "Halfouine: Boy of the Terraces." She makes it implacably clear that in the world she depicts in such complete and convincing detail, women have no real rights whatsoever, yet she is able to portray life and individuals in the round.
Oppression, exploitation and outright tragedy are forever lurking in the lives of the palace's large retinue of female servants, yet they possess a capacity to enjoy life's everyday pleasures and to be supportive, at times selflessly, of one another.
A beautiful young Tunis nightclub singer, Alia (Ghalia Lacroix), facing the prospect of yet another abortion, learns of the death of Sid' Ali (Kamel Fazaa), who never acknowledged that he was her father. Although she fled from his family's palace a decade earlier, she returns to pay her respects to his widow (Sonia Meddeb), who was unable to bear children and has spent her entire adult life with a fixed expression of hurt and reproach. Wandering the immense palace with its beautiful tile work and ornate period French furnishings, Alia is overcome with memories, especially of herself moving into her teens.
Beauty and talent could be a curse for a woman in such surroundings. As the most beautiful of the kitchen servants--and a belly dancer besides--Alia's mother Khedija (Amel Hedhili) has no choice but to submit to the virile Sid' Ali's advances. In keeping with the most important rule of the palace--silence--no one ever refers to the identity of Khedija's daughter, who grows up in a painfully ambiguous position.
She is raised with Sid' Ali's niece but is ordered out of camera range in a family portrait; yet Sid' Ali, who is openly affectionate toward Alia (now played by pretty Hend Sabri) immediately afterward, poses for the camera with her and his niece. Having been sold to Sid' Ali's family at the age of 10, Khedija realistically cannot imagine how she could support herself and her daughter outside the palace yet is determined at all costs that Alia, who's so bright, talented and vital, will escape her own fate.
Working with an extraordinarily fluid cameraman, Youssef Ben Youssef, Tlatli displays a flowing, sensual style. "The Silences of the Palaces" is alternately brutal and tender and is the most intimate and delicately nuanced of films. Tlatli commands the most spontaneous yet carefully shaded portrayals from her large cast.
Hedhili is a majestic figure of self-sacrificing mother love and Sabri the most vibrant and beguiling of budding young women. By the very act of making "The Silences of the Palace" Tlatli strikes a blow for women's rights, yet her detachment is such that she is able to suggest that women, regardless of class, and even men, can be prisoners of their culture. It is fitting that this provocative film opens just two days after the 40th anniversary of Tunisian independence.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film includes a scene of an abortion, some sexuality and has complex adult themes unsuitable for preteens.
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'The Silences of the Palace'
Hend Sabri: Young Alia
Amel Hedhili: Khedija
Kamel Fazaa: Sid' Ali
Ghalia Lacroix: Alia as an adult
A Capitol Entertainment release of a Franco-Tunisian co-production: Cinetelefilms & Magfilm (Tunisia)/Mat Films (France). Writer-director-editor Moufida Tlatli. Adaptation and dialogue Nouri Bouzid. Producers Ahmed Baha Eddine Attia and Richard Magnien. Cinematographer Youssef Ben Youssef. Music Anouar Brahem. Set designer Claude Bennys.. In Arabic, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.