Love in the time of razor wire is the subject of “Pomegranates and Myrrh,” a romance of Palestinian origin that avoids making an argument about Middle East politics, and as a result is fiercely political and fiercely charged. Romantic elements, first-rate acting and an unusual pedigree could make tyro helmer Najwa Najjar’s heartfelt drama a specialty hit, particularly in the proper hands. Pic is now traveling the fest circuit following its Sundance premiere.
As happens with the best political films, the politics themselves are almost incidental. (Was “To Kill a Mockingbird” primarily about racism, or Scout? Was “Reds” about the Bolsheviks?) “Pomegranates and Myrrh” isn’t obsessed with the political circumstances in which its story is set; it’s concerned with people. But the fact that everything that happens to these people happens because of the untenable politics surrounding them makes for a scathing critique.
For instance, if not for the Israeli seizure of his property on trumped-up charges, Zaid (Ashraf Farah) wouldn’t have been taken away by soldiers — leaving his new bride, the beautiful Kamar (Yasmine Elmasri, “Caramel”), to be distracted by the handsome Lebanese choreographer, Kais (Ali Suleiman), who arrives to teach her dance troupe. And if not for 50 years of religious and territorial hostilities, as well as the sense of fatality that infects the population of Ramallah, tempers might not run so high and people might not act the way they do. Director-writer Najjar is most interested in Kamar, who embodies the exigent feminine: She wants Zaid home, regardless of what it takes. Zaid, however, is afraid that if he confesses to assault on a soldier, he’ll lose his home and his olive groves. So he sits in jail while Kamar tries to lead her life and resume her career with her old dance troupe, which itself is caught up between traditional dance and the modernist choreography Kais has brought back with him from Lebanon. It’s an artistic conflict that parallels the film’s political conundrum and its romantic dilemma, a credit to Najjar’s architectural gifts as a screenwriter.
Given that “Pomegranates and Myrrh” has turmoil at its core, the shooting is appropriately tight, close and breathless, focused on faces and the tumultuous dance of the characters as they carom off each other, physically and figuratively. It’s a generally dark film, in both visuals and mood, save for the occasional comic explosion by Umm Habib (Hiam Abbass), a female cafe owner with zero tolerance for male misbehavior, whether it’s committed by her 4-year-old son or the Israeli boy-men who intrude on her business. Abbass (who was so memorable in “The Visitor”), almost steals the film with her steeliness as Umm, which is certainly amusing, but also warns about what Kamar could become.
Najjar avoids a religious argument by making Zaid’s family Christian rather than Muslim. Eschewing any hint of the sordid, she also leaves much of the plotline unresolved. How far the romance goes between Kamar and Kais, for instance, could be interpreted several ways, including the most innocent (which also seems the most probable, given Kamar’s general character). The point is that many things can happen when people’s lives are controlled by forces that are hostile, suspicious or just capricious, and it’s a state of being Najjar has captured very pointedly, and with great care.