A beautiful sense of restraint and a rare sensitivity to internalized grief infuse “Borders of Heaven” with a profound empathy that transcends nationality, making Fares Naanaa’s directing debut one of the few Tunisian titles capable of overcoming the arthouse blind spot for the region. Reminiscent of “The Son’s Room” in how it traces the quiet, devastating effect of the loss of a child on a young couple, “Borders” boasts a sterling script anchored by two likable and well-delineated protags played to perfection by lead thesps Lotfi Abdelli and Anissa Daoud. Box office at home has been exceptional, with moderate worldwide success attainable notwithstanding (or perhaps due to) its wrenching theme.
The setup quickly establishes relationships and social strata: Sara (Daoud) and Samy (Abdelli) are a loving, middle-class couple with a sweet 5-year-old daughter, Yasmine (Sophie Ghodhbane). Sara comes from a wealthy family and still retains traces of a privileged mentality, whereas Samy has less entitled origins, having been raised by a mother (Mouna Noureddine) who struggled as a single parent.
Samy is an architect, Sara a teacher; their lives are as harmonious as is reasonable for a thirtysomething couple. Then one day Yasmine is gone: Naanaa uses admirable understatement in the way he introduces the little girl’s death, for which Samy feels responsible. In an instant their lives are fractured, and rather than finding a modicum of solace in their mutual grief, Samy withdraws into himself, consumed with guilt. Now perpetually unshaven and numbing his sorrow in booze, Samy is unable to function, refusing any succor as he torments himself with Yasmine’s always-present aura.
Sara is equally devastated, yet while her husband won’t allow himself redemption, she looks for ways to cope with a loss that will never diminish. A women’s singing group helps her find distraction and a sense of temporary calm, but Samy’s self-imposed isolation threatens to tear the marriage apart, and she takes refuge with her parents (Martine Gafsi and Abdelghani Ben Tara).
Wisely, Naanaa keeps the narrative simple, focusing on character and the ways two good people attempt to deal with the unimaginable. By refusing to film Yasmine’s death or the immediate reactions, he steers clear of prurience or spectacle, instead delving into the far deeper aftermath of mourning, when life is meant to continue even though the road map to the future has been effaced. Ultimately, bridges will form, but thankfully the script respects its characters as well as the audience, offering quiet resolution with no guarantees.
Samy’s physical transformation from vigorous and well-shaven to tormented and unkempt is so striking that at first it’s as if the role has been given to two actors. Abdelli, known at home as both actor and comedian, delivers a penetrating, moving performance that justly earned him the best actor prize in Dubai; he’s beautifully matched by Daoud’s quieter despair. Sara’s grief threatens to be nullified by Samy’s more demonstrable depression: Her sense of loss is just as great, yet she realizes she needs to find a way to keep living, knowing it will be easier to face the permanently blighted path ahead if her husband is by her side.
Visuals favor closeups suitable to the private intensity of the story, allowing Sofian El Fan’s supple camerawork to capture the intimacy of everyday objects and tasks along with the closeness of families unsettled by thoughts of being alone. This lack of showiness, understated yet brimming with emotion, is the key to the pic’s success. Just as Sara finds a sense of spiritual calm through singing, so the music chosen allows audiences a quietly emotional aural conduit through the bittersweet melancholy they share with the characters.