The idea of a film without a country makes an excellent statement about the Israeli-Palestinian disaster — it’s a pity the concept is considerably more powerful than the movie at hand. Given Suha Arraf’s record as scripter on “The Syrian Bride” and “Lemon Tree,” one expects more than ham-fisted dialogue from her helming debut, “Villa Touma,” an airless, artificial chamber piece about three sisters from Ramallah’s upper middle class who refuse to acknowledge the passing of time post-1967. Stolid, stilted and lensed with little understanding of modulation, the pic has sparked controversy, yet once that dies down, “Villa” will be subsumed by far superior Palestinian product.
Arraf originally submitted the film as a Palestinian production, but when Israeli politicos realized that all the coin came from Israel, they demanded the money back. The compromise, sending the pic to fests as a stateless feature, is such a clever idea it’s surprising it’s not done more often; if only “Villa Touma” on its own could make such a potent declaration. The Palestinian haute bourgeoisie, pre- and post-Israeli statehood, has been frustratingly neglected in cinema, making the missed opportunity here truly unfortunate.
In 2000, when Badia (Maria Zreik) ages out of the Christian orphanage where she grew up, she has nowhere to go but to the aunts she’s never met. The three sisters exist in semi-isolated stasis in their villa, living as if nothing has changed since the Six-Day War, when Israel took the city. The eldest, Juliette (Nisreen Faour, “Amreeka”) greets her niece even less warmly than Mrs. Danvers greeted the second Mrs. de Winter: Clearly, Badia is not a welcome addition to this unhappy home.
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Juliette rules the roost, middle sister Violette (Ula Tabari) is the neurotic one, and younger Antoinette (Cherien Dabis, director-star of “May in the Summer”) remains perpetually under her siblings’ viselike control. Their home is one of unbending routine, their fashions unchanged since the early 1960s (though most would have been outdated even then). Violette was briefly hitched to an elderly man who keeled over shortly after their wedding; her fleeting marriage makes her feel superior, yet the self-torment of what could have been has made her a pinched, bitter mess.
Into this hothouse comes timid Badia, underage and unschooled in the proprieties of “society.” In anticipation of marrying her off to one of the few eligible bachelors among Ramallah’s remaining upper caste, the sisters impose a strict program of piano lessons, posture and deportment, but when they try launching the blossoming young woman via church encounters and tea socials, they’re largely rebuffed by people who view the family as oddities.
“Villa Touma” has one good moment, when the sisters, with Badia in tow, exit their home and walk to church. Auds forget the modern world exists after the antediluvian world inside the house, so the sight of these four, dressed in kid gloves and hat veils, walking down the streets of present-day Ramallah with its cacophony of noise, traffic and wolf whistles, becomes a cleverly constructed shock. Unfortunately, nothing else matches that moment.
The concept isn’t the problem, as the idea of Palestinians trapped in the past, refusing to acknowledge the painful changes around them, could be an interesting one if well pursued. The Toumas’ internal exile gives them no consolation, and their perpetual mourning of the past is purely social rather than political (of course, the political rendered the social obsolete). Not that politics are completely absent: Badia falls for Khalil (Nicholas Jacob), a wedding singer from the Kalandia refugee camp, and despite the sisters’ hermetic existence, they can’t close out the sound of shelling during the Second Intifada.
These subtleties are drowned out by the film’s mannered melodrama. There’s the didactic screenplay, ensuring viewers understand the situation via phony explanatory dialogue (don’t look for any similarities between this and Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.”). Then there’s Arraf’s handling of her performers, especially the actors playing the sisters, all of whom have fortunately proven their talents elsewhere. Juliette behaves as if she’s got an onion perpetually under her nose, while Violette seems to have something more pungent under hers, and Antoinette is short on personality, even a one-dimensional one like those of her sisters.
Camerawork is meant to emphasize the characters’ fixed lives via static lensing and establishing shots, yet the stiff visuals are rendered distressingly flat by unmodulated lighting that deadens every image within the house. Music is poorly inserted, lacking consistency and cohesion. At least the production design is praiseworthy.