A week before his marriage, a young man with no gumption meets a free-spirited woman who makes him feel alive in tyro helmer Mohamed Ben Attia’s adept and absorbing drama “Hedi.” Different audiences will have different takeaways: Those unacquainted with Tunisian current events will appreciate an intimate relationship film with characters they can cotton to, while others will spot not just the nation’s economic plight, but also pre- and post-Revolution parallels in terms of people numbly doing as they’ve always been told vs. those breaking free from expectation. Tunisian cinema is on a roll this season, and “Hedi” has the maturity (together with the Berlinale placement and the Dardenne brothers attached as co-producers) to successfully work the arthouse niche internationally.
Hedi (Majd Mastoura) is the very picture of a man listlessly treading the path laid out for him. He works for Peugeot selling cars to companies, but few are biting with the economic downturn. He’s also a lousy salesman with zero interest in what he’s doing. That extends not only to his work but also to his personal life: In one week he’ll marry Khedija (Omnia Ben Ghali), but for him there’s no spark.
Yet everything has been arranged by his mother, Baya (Sabah Bouzouita), just as everything has always been arranged by her. A strong-willed widow determined to keep Hedi close especially since her older son, Ahmed (Hakim Boumessaoudi), lives in France, Baya prepares the apartment upstairs to house the newlyweds, and probably has never thought to ask either child what he himself would want.
On a sales visit to the coastal city of Mahdia, Hedi meets Rim (Rym Ben Messaoud), an itinerant dancer and activities coordinator for tourists at hotels. Although he’s known Khedija for three years, he’s never been alone with her except for chaste rendezvous in his car; Rim’s easygoing physicality is a completely new experience, and they quickly begin an intense affair. It’s time for Hedi to make a decision on his own: Follow the globetrotting Rim, or settle down as expected.
On one level “Hedi” is a universal story, about a young man needing to choose between duty and passion. Yet to divorce it from its culture would diminish a great deal of what makes the film so rich and well observed. Though the film is set now, five years after the Revolution, Hedi is very much a figure from before: His life is a rote cycle of uninspired work and obedience to his overbearing mother (who can be seen as a stand-in for the state).
Khedija seems to be a lovely young woman (her character is the least developed), but has no ambition. Coming from a well-off traditional but non-religious family in the conservative city of Kairouan, she was raised without aspirations beyond a husband and children — she has nothing to talk about with Hedi, and wouldn’t dream of exchanging kisses before the wedding. Rim, with her visible though discreet tattoos, is the opposite: She’s five years older than Hedi, well traveled, independent and able to grasp at joy when it comes.
At one point Hedi talks about the Revolution, and how for three days attitudes completely changed, yet he wasn’t able to translate that into his personal life. His one dream was always dismissed: He longs to have his accomplished, surrealist graphic work published, but no one ever valued his drawings until Rim. She represents his personal revolution, a life of self-valorization, and Ben Attia includes a terrific dance scene in which Hedi completely loses himself to the music in a moment of total release.
After so many scenes of him appearing shut down, it’s tremendously satisfying to watch the character become a dynamic figure. His name itself is significant, as Hedi means calm, and Mastoura plays him with a sullen passivity until Rim opens his eyes to the possibility of enjoying life, on his own terms. Ben Massaoud’s natural, laid-back presence is the right unexaggerated counterpoint, with Bouzouita’s potently overbearing nature an equally powerful force.
Lensing by Frederic Noirhomme has an informal, freeform feel while being very carefully considered (though there are perhaps a few too many shots of the back of Hedi’s head, even if it’s designed to signal his impassive state). Large closeups heighten the sense of intimacy and closeness to the characters, while the widescreen allows Ben Attia to subtly remark on Tunisia’s economic problems, with empty hotels and beaches, and companies struggling in this terrorist age to get by without tourists.