Few things are more difficult to get right than a film about a sensational subject, “inspired by true events,” that doesn’t pander to clichés. Belgian director Stephan Streker begins his honor killing drama “A Wedding” in a way that makes audiences feel that, finally, here’s a refreshingly un-stereotypical depiction of an immigrant Pakistani family in Europe. Unfortunately, the feeling doesn’t last. Streker strives hard to offer a balanced view of a traditional family in Belgium forcing their daughter into an arranged marriage, yet in the end he delivers an issue-of-the-week cautionary tale that, though well-made, hits far too many expected buttons. Thankfully the luminous presence of lead actress Lina El Arabi compensates for the disappointment. Topicality, plus awards in Angoulême and Namur, presage a strong Francophone rollout in February 2017.
Like it or not, “A Wedding” cannot be viewed in a vacuum: It’s impossible to ignore the increasing demonization of Islam in Western cultures, just as it’s impossible to close our eyes to the avalanche of recent documentaries, dramas, and short films about honor killings (including “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” “In the Name of the Family: Honor Killings in North America,” “Honour,” “Honor Diaries,” “Murdered by My Father,” “House with Small Windows,” “Bliss”). That doesn’t mean the topic is now off limits, but its high visibility together with its headline-grabbing horror demands a nuance and depth which Streker is unable to achieve.
The only real surprise, apart from newcomer El Arabi’s high-wattage charisma, is how well “A Wedding” kicks off, with 18-year-old Zahira (El Arabi) at a clinic deciding whether to terminate her pregnancy. What’s unexpected is that her family knows what she’s doing, and while they’re not happy about the situation, they support the abortion. She’s conflicted, even after her boyfriend Tariq (Bilel Ghommidh) tells her they’re over, and at first doesn’t go through with the termination even though she tells her family it’s done.
Dad Mansoor (Babak Karimi, “A Separation”) and mom Yelda (Neena Kulkarni) are anxious to relegate Zahira’s mistake to the past: they’re focused on steering her towards an arranged marriage, just as they did with her older sister Hina (Aurora Marion). But the young woman is as much an integrated Belgian teen as she is a dutiful Pakistani daughter, and she sees no good reason to limit her life choices any more than would her best friend Aurore (Alice de Lencquesaing). Zahira’s older brother Amir (Sébastien Houbani) is placed in an impossible situation: uphold the family honor, as dictated by his parents, or support the sister he loves?
Streker (“The World Belongs to Us”) is at his best in capturing the indistinct line between teenager and adult, showing Zahira’s childlike energy and indecision together with a burgeoning sense of womanhood. In capturing this “the world’s your oyster” excitement, he’s nicely abetted by Zacharie Chasseriaud as Pierre, the schoolmate whose winningly enthusiastic romantic pursuit reinforces Zahira’s conviction that she can be mistress of her own destiny. The director also scrupulously tries to present Mansoor as a loving father tied to a rigid code of honor which will destroy his entire family if shirked; in this, Streker succeeds only fitfully. When Mansoor angrily tells his daughter that Pakistanis only ever marry Pakistanis, with no exceptions, one longs for her to throw back in his face the example of quite a few star cricketers, whose non-traditional marital alliances are known to all.
Zahira’s mother Yelda is less well-defined, as if Streker wasn’t entirely sure what to do with her character. Smaller roles are better, such as Aurore’s kind father André (Olivier Gourmet), not wanting to tread on cultural sensitivities but supportive of Zahira’s decisions, and even Adnan (Harmandeep Palminder), her prospective groom in Pakistan, naively professing his love over Skype. But this is El Arabi’s movie all the way, and she nails the sense of a young woman coming into her own, struggling to balance a normal, potentially selfish desire to fulfill her dreams as a liberated European, with the pull of family and cultural responsibility. In addition, it’s nice to see how the actress uses her hijab, subtly acknowledging the complex associations of the headscarf, which can be comfort and protection. In El Arabi’s only other leading role, the TV movie “Ne m’abandonne pas,” she’s a radicalized French citizen heading to Syria. Let’s hope casting directors finally offer her greater scope beyond what’s assumed by her last name.
Stylistically, “A Wedding” looks good (though why is the family apartment so dimly lit?), and music satisfactorily links scenes. Yet Streker should know that when he reveals a gun midway through, audiences will expect it to be used by the end.