Winner of the Intl. Critics Prize at the recent Carthage Film Festival, Tunisian Ridha Behi’s “Swallows Never Die in Jerusalem” is an ambitious and largely convincing drama in which helmer sympathetically depicts all sides in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Film may meet with disapproval in partisan quarters, but Behi’s intellectual humanism and cinematic verve point to a Maghrebian Renoir. Fest and offshore theatrical and web slots are sure, but “Swallows”– which toplines Ben Gazzara and French vet Jacques Perrin — could, with a title change, find limited stateside legs.
On the eve of the Yitzhak Rabin-Yasir Arafat peace accord, French TV journalist Richard (Perrin) arrives in Israel to write a political story, offering him the opportunity to see his girlfriend Esther (Laurence Massliah), a psychologist whose father, Moshe (Gazzara), is still haunted by memories of the Holocaust. Richard’s guide is Palestinian taxi driver Hammoudi, aka “Local Radio” (Selim Dhaou), whose family had been displaced in 1948 and who, with his elderly father Anis (Youssef Aiani), now hunts for his long-lost grandmother, whose photo suddenly appears in an Arabic daily. Richard seizes on the family’s search as core of his investigative report.
Local Radio’s Westernized sister, Zeinab (Rim Turkhi), must endure a husband, Riadh (Ameur Khalil), who’s been transformed by Israeli-enforced Jordanian exile from secular “terriost” to narrow-minded, and potentially violent Islamic fundamentalist. Richard, who wants to unite the two old Palestinian and Israeli men on the tube, finds that the complex politics and ancient rivalries of the area exceed his ability to shape events, and his piece concludes with unanticipated tragedy rather than manipulated harmony.
Behi’s script — which, to its credit, centers on Palestinian Hammoudi rather than European characters — draws neat parallels between the Richard-Esther and Riadh-Zeinab relationships, as well as between old Moshe and Anis. Pic’s use of archival footage (Arabs being forced to flee their homes in Jaffa in ’48; Palestine Liberation Organization leader Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, and U.S. President Bill Clinton shaking hands in the White House garden) and interviews conducted through a video monitor help temper this occasionally overly schematic embodiment of every possible group involved in the area’s problems.
Excellent tech credits include superb lensing by Dutch Theo van de Sande. Thesping is high quality, even if occasional bad dubbing (Gazzara speaking Hebrew) detracts from the elegant flow of the story.