Near-perfect period detail and a solid central perf make "Flower of Oblivion" an attractive package, though helmer Selma Baccar allows certain exaggerated elements to run away with an engrossing central premise.
Near-perfect period detail and a solid central perf make “Flower of Oblivion” an attractive package, though helmer Selma Baccar allows certain exaggerated elements to run away with an engrossing central premise. Set in the 1930s and ’40s among the upper crust of Tunisian society, story focuses on an unhappy wife’s descent into addiction and madness while also commenting on the limited choices available to women at the time. In a feel akin to a good “Masterpiece Theater”-type production, pic benefits from accomplished lensing by Theo Angelopoulos collaborator Andreas Sinanos. Fest play has been steady.
Opening scenes in a madhouse are the most overdone, as Zakia (Rabia Ben Abdallah) goes through withdrawal pains and tries to remember her identity. As her mind gradually finds an uneasy peace, her recovering memory becomes the vehicle for a series of flashbacks.
As a young bride, Zakia faces a golden future, but her husband Si Mokhtar (Raouf Ben Amor) prefers the sexual favors of his male servant Jaafar (Mohamed-Ali Ben Jemaa). Her domineering mother-in-law (Halima Daoud) offers little comfort, and only a monumental, and violent, one-time effort by hubby results in a longed-for pregnancy.
Zakia’s difficult delivery is eased by an infusion of poppies, starting her on the road to oblivion. Tormented by her husband’s lack of interest and feeling like a complete failure, she becomes increasingly reliant on the potent tea, gradually losing interest in anything other than her opium stash. Years pass, and her downward spiral drives even daughter Meriem (Hend Fahem) away when Zakia basically sells her to a suitor with a large poppy field inheritance.
Baccar makes all these scenes believable, enriching them with glimpses of life in pre-independent Tunisia that will be especially fascinating to international auds. But far too much time is spent on Zakia’s asylum romance with nutty loner Khemais (Alaeddine Ayoub), accompanied by fellow inmates outrageously overplaying their mad scenes. Unrealistic coda is especially unsatisfying.
Casting is pic’s strong suit: The focus of practically every scene, Ben Abdallah succeeds in presenting a strong woman reduced to humiliating circumstances by the deadly combination of unhappiness and addiction. Terrific art direction from Taoufik Behi, beautifully complemented by Kais Tounsi’s period clothes, add substantially to the overall flavor, while d.p. Sinanos makes the villas and palaces all look nostalgically inviting.