Two gal pals (one Muslim, one Jewish) in Nazi-occupied Tunis try to cling to each other despite their differences in “The Wedding Song.” Second feature by Karin Albou (“Little Jerusalem”) is a bold, very carnal take on adolescent female bonding in a setting not often portrayed onscreen, and including areas normally forbidden to male viewers. Small but ambitious movie should be able to sing its way into fests and arthouses, with only its explicit nudity limiting commercial prospects.
Together with “Little Jerusalem,” pic confirms Albou as a new and original voice. Her preoccupations include feminine sexuality and Jewish and Arab culture and religion — plus the major and minor clashes all these elements provoke when thrown together.
Film quickly establishes its time and place as it opens with a belly dancer who’s rewarded with food coupons instead of money. It’s Tunis, 1942, and handsome cousins Khaled (Najib Oudghiri) and Nour (Olympe Borval) are celebrating their engagement.
Nour, a Muslim, grew up around the same courtyard as Jewish Myriam (Lizzie Brochere). In one of the screenplay’s many subtle mirror effects, the girls secretly desire each other’s lives. Myriam dreams of love, while Nour, who is mainly confined to the house, would like to go to school. Both are curious about men and sex.
The propaganda-spouting radio and the windows of the women’s quarters offer only a partial view of the historical context, though the Nazi presence does have far-reaching effects for both characters. Khaled can’t find a job, so the wedding is postponed. And Myriam’s mother (helmer Albou) has to pay a huge fine for being a Jewish resident, forcing her daughter to marry a kind but much older doctor (Simon Abkarian).
Albou gently pushes her narrative forward while finely sketching the contradictions in all her characters. As the more naive Nour starts to wonder whether there is any truth to the Nazi propaganda, and Myriam fearlessly tries to face her destiny, the girls grow apart. Ironically, the further they move apart, the more they find they need each other.
Laurent Brunet’s camera remains focused on the two leads, moving from two-shots to more isolated compositions as their separation increases. Pic also ventures into women’s quarters and the hammam spa with a casualness that is striking. One scene — in which a girl is literally stripped of her pubic hair in preparation for her wedding night — will have some auds applauding the film’s unflinching eye, while others will look away in shock.
Performances are generally strong, though Borval, who’s not Arab and had to learn the language from scratch, looks less at ease than Brochere, who displays an unsettling intensity. Albou’s perf as Myriam’s mom indicates she could have a career in front of the camera as well as behind it. Tech credits are tops.