“The Silences of the Palace” conveys with leisurely candor the problematic relationship between a servant and her illegitimate daughter. North African programmers and women’s fests should take note of this film, set in the repressive atmosphere of the ruling monarch’s compound on the eve of Tunisian independence.
Permeated by the importance of music and womanly solidarity, film unspools in gradual increments. Pacing suits the repetitive routine of female kitchen staff cut off from the outside world, but may seem overlong to many viewers. First feature from longtime film editor Moufida Tlatli would benefit from some trimming.
Story is told mostly in flashbacks repping p.o.v. of 25-year-old Alia, who, from birth through puberty, lived in the royal palace with her mother, Khedija, a lifelong servant who was obliged to sleep with her princely masters. Weary Alia is scheduled to undergo the latest in a series of abortions, at the behest of longtime b.f. Lotfi, when she learns that Prince Sid Ali has died.
Her return to the now run-down palace she’d fled 10 years prior triggers repressed memories and forces her to reconsider the fate of the child she is carrying. Though Alia never learns who sired her, she better understands her defeated mother’s special concern that Alia not be sucked into the hopeless and demeaning cycle of servitude.
Parallels between the nation’s bondage and that of the palace servants are sometimes overstated, but the repercussions on Alia — who ends up trading one form of slavery for another — are fairly well portrayed.
Newcomer Hend Sabri is fine as adolescent Alia, who discovers her singing voice and a measure of defiance as Tunisian nationalist forces battle the French in the streets of Tunis — developments that are conveyed exclusively through radio reports. Various strong-willed women give good perfs as the kitchen staff.
Details of household preparations — sorting beads, sewing, stomping raw textiles, are good. All work and celebration is accompanied by song. An anthem favored by the rebels has the force of a hammer blow when Alia defiantly sings it.