The presence of Claudia Cardinale in a key role will peak interest in “The String,” an attractive if obvious tale of a gay man returning to Tunisia and sorting out various emotional issues. Freshman helmer Mehdi Ben Attia pushes simplistic psychology and his dialogue can sound forced, but he’s got a firm grasp on the outsider feelings experienced by French-raised Arabs returning to the Maghreb, and his attractive, congenial cast rescue what’s little more than a semi-risque TV movie. Gay fests and an April release in France will precede likely Euro satcast exposure.
After an unspecified time in France, architect Malik (Antonin Stahly) comes back to Tunisia and into the arms of wealthy mom Sara (Cardinale). Apparently, therapy helped him with uncontrollable anxieties, but he still struggles with recurring panic attacks in which he imagines he can’t disentangle himself from a piece of string wrapped around his body. The presence of his late, no-nonsense father, Abdelaziz (Lotfi Dziri, in flashbacks), still suffuses the house and its inhabitants.
Also on the property is hunky handyman Bilal (Salim Kechiouche in a role he’s played several times before, in films such as “Grande ecole”). It’s pretty clear where this is all going: Malik and Bilal get it on, shocking Sara when she discovers them asleep in bed. A flashback reveals that Abdelaziz knew all along his son is gay, but Sara wasn’t willing to accept the truth. Cutting the (apron) string of his mind requires Malik to make peace with his filial duties and his sexual desires.
The string metaphor is clear enough without being literalized as it is here, and a lurid scene with Malik having vigorous sex with rough trade reveals a distinctly undeveloped sense of nuance. More sensitively handled is the pic’s subtext about class and the friction between Tunisians with assimilated French mores and their conservative fellow nationals, though it’s not saying anything new. Still, the feel-good message of tolerance and love should go down easily with target auds.
Tunisian-born Cardinale isn’t challenged in any way, but she’s a welcome presence and appears to be enjoying herself, while Kechiouche continues to prove he has the kind of screen presence that warrants a larger range of roles. Widescreen lensing is always pleasant to look at; auds attuned to the sprightly camp vibes of Patty Pravo’s “La bambola” will especially enjoy the way Ben Attia uses the vintage song.