We do not live in subtle times, and of all nuance-annihilating topics, few are as dramatically divisive as jihadism. Which makes Mohammed Ben Attia’s delicate portrait of devastation, “Dear Son,” remarkable for the quietness of its approach, its rich, calm, generous characterizations, and the compassion it evokes for extremism’s more indirect victims. After his award-winning 2016 debut “Hedi,” which was, like “Dear Son,” co-produced by the Dardenne brothers, Ben Attia has confirmed himself as an unassuming auteur of ordinary life in Tunisia, in which global, block-capital concerns are writ in intimate, personal cursive.
The film is both anchored and elevated by a performance of simple, radiant decency from Mohamed Dhrif, an actor whose few credits mostly date back to the 1980s. He plays Riadh, a Tunisian dock worker married to Nazli (Mouna Mejri, the mother of the lead actor from “Hedi”) who is the pragmatic foil to Riadh’s slightly impractical optimism. Their son, Sami (Zakaria Ben Ayed) is about to take his Baccalaureate exams and has been suffering from migraines. The family is not wealthy and money is a background issue, but really, concern for the meek and rather withdrawn Sami’s well being is the only scudding cloud in the gentle blue sky of Riadh and Nazli’s lives. They worry about striking a balance between encouraging the boy to achieve a future-brightening grade and stressing him out — and about whether his migraine prescription medications are worth it if they make him dopey and disinclined to study.
For quite a while these seem to be the film’s chief stakes, and the playing is so beautiful and the presentation so clean and transparent (helped along by DP Frédéric Noirhomme’s unobtrusive, handheld long takes) that they are enough. Riadh discusses matters with his friend at work, Sameh (Imen Cherif) — a wonderfully earthy character with a type of sexual frankness we least expect to hear coming from a Muslim woman. And it’s not just her unapologetically dirty mind that makes Sameh such a pleasantly idiosyncratic portrayal of Tunisian womanhood. Endearingly, while Riadh might chuckle at Sameh’s brazen innuendoes, he always takes her advice; their friendship exists on unusually equal terms of mutual respect.
Sami’s headaches aren’t going away but a visit to a psychiatrist seems to bring him mild relief as the exam looms. And by now we’re so attuned to the fluctuations in Riadh’s mood, we can sense a slight loosening in his tight knot of concern for his son, which is of course when the blow lands. One day, Sami is gone from his bedroom. While the idea of such a beloved child running away would be heartbreak enough, it’s much worse than that: The destination given in his terse note is Syria. Riadh, to Nazli’s dismay, resolves to follow him there to try to coax him back, a journey, via Turkey, through a shady demi-monde of traffickers and dingy hotel rooms, which seems to age him a year every day.
At the pivot point between the before and the after there is an understated scene that eloquently captures the central relationship. Sami has decided to go on a night out, and Riadh drives him. He offers to collect him too, and when Sami demurs, Riadh insists that there’s a friend living nearby with whom he wants to take tea, and so returning to pick him up would be no inconvenience. But after Sami goes into the club, we stay in the car with Riadh as he drives up the road a bit and waits. Later, Sami lies to his father that he had fun at the party, just as Riadh lies about spending the evening with a friend. They lie to protect the other’s feelings, but a lie is a lie. And Ben Attia’s subtle suggestion is that it’s Riadh’s desire to insulate Sami from harder truths that contributes to the boy’s otherwise unexplained detachment from the world, and his subsequent, horrifying decision.
It’s almost a shame that any outline of “Dear Son” has to make mention of jihadism, as the film itself is rarely so blunt. Indeed, for a while it’s almost possible that this story will simply be an engaging, characterful drama about the generational gulf and family ties fraying under the Tunisian sun. But “Dear Son” is both more and less savage than that. In its focus not on Sami, whose motivations are unknowable, but on Riadh, whose sole motivation is shiningly clear, it depicts little outright violence and yet has a ferocious emotional impact, making us live with and love this good man, while almost without him noticing, his world explodes.