British Yemeni documaker Bader Ben Hirsi (“9/11–Through Saudi Eyes”) spins a pleasant if gossamer Arabian fable in “A New Day in Old Sana’a,” advertised as the first feature film to come out of Yemen. Constraints imposed by the country’s hyper-conservative government are pretty obvious in the inoffensive story of a young blueblood torn between love and tradition; the only surprise is the abundance of veiled and unveiled women. But the glimpses afforded of Old Sana’a are a Lonely Planet addict’s dream, and festival coverage could well segue into a limited arthouse run.
Proving its audience appeal in the Mideast, pic won the Arab Film prize at its Cairo Film Festival debut.
The ancient city of cobbled streets and soaring stone towers provides a striking backdrop to this highly concocted tale, which is made even more exotic by being seen through the eyes of a Western photographer, Federico (Paolo Romano). This Italian who speaks perfect British English is drawn into the problems of his local assistant Tariq (Nabil Saber), who is set to wed the most beautiful girl in Sana’a, Bilquis (Redha Khoder).
Though Tariq has never laid eyes on his bride-to-be, he believes he sees her dancing through the streets one night in a billowy white dress he has given her as a present. In reality, the dancer is Ines (Dania Hammoud), a poor orphan with a crush on Tariq.
As a simple story about a stolen dress unfolds, Ben Hirsi deftly juggles the broad comedy of village gossip spread by the egg peddler Amal (Sahar Alasbahi), with the more serious melody of Tariq’s broken heart when he discovers it’s Ines he loves, not Bilquis.
Federico jerks the viewer back to reality with rather unnecessary comparisons of Yemeni society with the West and by needlessly spelling out the question of whether young people like Tariq really have options.
As Federico points out several times, it is strictly taboo to look at, much less photograph, women. Yet curiously, women are the film’s real focus, and Ben Hirsi involves the viewer in his voyeuristic pursuit of them inside and outside their homes.
Both leads Khoder and Hammoud look ravishing under their veils. A scene in which Ines, a henna artist, is called to Federico’s hotel room to adorn his broad shoulders and naked back with her art, while Tariq looks on, is loaded with unexpressed sexual innuendo. But this is clearly as far as a film shot on location can go. The story’s romantic, fairy-tale conclusion pales beside the subtle social and personal issues it raises.
The cast of professional actors offers broad, stage-like perfs skimming the surface of their characters. More penetrating is the textured Super-16 photography of Lebanese cinematographer Muriel Aboulrouss, which captures the sleepy, deserted city from all angles. Producer Ahmed Abdali contributes a dramatic, epic score.