'The Source'

Overwrought fable mixes melodrama, broad comedy and message movie with cliched Middle Eastern exoticism.

Women in an isolated Maghreb village launch a love strike to protest the dangerous work of fetching water from a mountain spring in “The Source,” the drawn-out fifth feature from Romania-born, France-based helmer Radu Mihaileanu (“The Concert”). Mixing melodrama, broad comedy and message movie with cliched Middle Eastern exoticism, this overwrought fable proves a difficult concoction to swallow. Still, the colorful, lushly designed Arabic-lingo pic might seduce undiscriminating audiences and ride the coattails of current interest in the North African revolutions to achieve limited play outside the co-production countries.

In a scenic hamlet where the long-suffering women labor like beasts of burden and produce children like breeding machines, their hot-tempered men folk claim their patriarchal right to lounge around drinking tea and playing cards while being waited on hand and foot. Young wife Leila (“Bad Faith’s” beauteous Leila Bekhti, recently named one of cosmetics firm L’Oreal’s global ambassadors), an outsider from the more easygoing south, is concerned by the number of miscarriage-triggering accidents occurring on the steep mountain path the femmes tread each day to fetch water. Her suggestion that the males pitch in until a pipeline is installed draws scorn from her nasty mother-in-law, Fatima (Hiam Abbass), who continually agitates for her son to repudiate the barren Leila.

Supported by feisty widowed neighbor Old Warhorse (Biyouna) and free-thinking schoolteacher hubby Sami (Saleh Bakri, “The Band’s Visit”), Leila proposes a no-nookie regime until the situation changes. Despite condemnation by the sheikh, imam and the rest of the burg’s outraged men, the ladies maintain their resolve, even to the point of enduring physical and psychological maltreatment. Their our-bodies-ourselves rebellion (voiced in several kitschy song-and-dance numbers) eventually expands to encompass aspirations for equal rights in education, mosque and home.

The script, following the Mihaileanu formula of equal parts schmaltz and stereotype, tosses in half a dozen underdeveloped side plots in order to tick off issues. Among them, Leila’s soap opera-loving sister-in-law (Hafsia Herzi, “The Secret of the Grain”) seizes her freedom by learning to read and write; narrow-minded Islamists get their comeuppance; and Leila’s first love, Soufiane (Malek Akhmiss), shows up out of the blue to provoke her husband’s jealousy. Characters are all one-note, except for poor Sami who schizophrenically wavers between loving husband and macho male.

The principal cast of pan-Arab thesps, all of whom has appeared to greater advantage in better films, deliver their lines in Darijia, a melodious Moroccan dialect they had to learn, and which helmer Mihaileanu didn’t speak at all. However, this didn’t prevent him from writing lyrics for the production numbers.

Shot in Morocco, the glowing camerawork has a self-consciously epic sweep, while the gorgeous production design separates the sexes into clearly defined domains. Using traditional Middle Eastern instrumentation, composer Armand Amar’s lilting score provides an apt “Arabian Nights” ambience.

Comparisons to Lebanese helmer Nadine Labaki’s Un Certain Regard entry “Where Do We Go Now?,” also a “Lysistrata”-inspired tale of female bonding, seem inevitable, though Labaki’s effort comes off as more sincere and audacious.

The Source

France-Morocco-Belgium-Italy

Production

A EuropaCorp Distribution (in France) release of a Elzevir Films, Oi Oi Oi Prods. production in co-production with EuropaCorp, France 3 Cinema, Cie Cinematographique Europeene, Panache Prods., RTBF, Bim Distribuzione, Indigo Film, Agora Films, SNRT, with the support of Eurimages, with the participation of Canal Plus, CineCinema, France Televisions. (International sales: EuropaCorp, Paris.) Produced by Denis Carot, Marie Masmonteil, Radu Mihaileanu. Directed by Radu Mihaileanu. Screenplay, Mihaileanu, Alain Michel Blanc, with the collaboration of Catherine Ramberg.

Crew

Camera (color), Glynn Speeckaert; editor, Ludo Troch; music, Armand Amar; production designer, Cristian Niculescu; costume designer, Viorica Petrovici; sound (Dolby Digital), Henry Morelle, Selim Azzazi, Bruno Tarriere. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 21, 2011. Running time: 136 MIN.

With

Leila Bekhti, Hafsia Herzi, Biyouna, Sabrina Ouazani, Saleh Bakri, Hiam Abbass, Mohamed Majd, Amal Atrach, Malek Akhmiss. (Arabic dialogue, Darija dialect)

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