You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘A Son’

A couple’s world collapses when their son is shot, and the father discovers he’s not the boy’s biological parent.

Mehdi M. Barsaoui
Sami Bouajila, Najla Ben Abdallah, Youssef Khemiri

Running time: 96 MIN.

Not many debuting directors are able to bring subtlety and depth to a heart-rending subject, which is just one reason why Mehdi M. Barsaoui’s superb “A Son” deserves significant attention. On the surface, the plot sounds like it could be taken from a hospital TV drama: When a young boy needs a liver transplant, his father discovers he’s not the biological parent. Such a bare-bones description does the film no justice, as Barsaoui’s sensitive script delves into issues of masculinity and paternity without losing sight of the strong female character and her double trauma as she faces the potential loss of both child and husband. Shrewdly weaving politics throughout the film while keeping outward statements in the background, “A Son” is grounded in the recent Tunisian past but will easily transcend cultural differences and should be grabbed for international art-house distribution.

The first five minutes or so exude such energetic happiness that you know it can’t last. It’s early September 2011, just months after the Tunisian revolution, and Fares Ben Youssef (Sami Bouajila), his wife Meriem (Najla Ben Abdallah) and their 11-year-old Aziz (Youssef Khemiri) drive south to Tataouine for the last days of their summer holiday. They’re the picture of a tight-knit middle-class couple with good jobs (she’s just gotten a promotion), liberal friends and a new SUV, enjoying the sense of renewal and freedom ushered in by the fall of the dictatorship — though clearly they benefited under the old system. Then, while driving, they’re caught in an ambush and Aziz is shot.

Popular on Variety

Fares and Meriem arrive at the hospital covered in their son’s blood, not knowing if he’ll live. The boy’s condition is too critical to move him to Tunis, and the surgeons have had to remove 80% of his liver, urgently necessitating a transplant. Compassionate Dr. Dhaoui (Noomen Hamda) offers cautious comfort, ordering tests to see which parent would be a match for a liver donation. When the results arrive, he calls Meriem into his office alone: She’s not the right blood type, and Fares isn’t Aziz’s biological father. She takes the news in with shock and horrified recognition, silently wondering how she’s going to tell her husband.

Barsaoui proves himself far too sensitive a director to show Meriem explaining this to Fares, instead cutting to immediately after, as he walks down the hospital corridor in a daze. Earlier scenes of the intimate relationship between father and son already brought Fares’ delight in being a parent to the fore, and now his world has been rocked to its foundations. Terrified of losing his son, distraught he can do nothing to help, and now feeling betrayed as a husband, he lashes out at Meriem, revealing an aggressive side that bursts to the surface. “Did you have many?” he taunts, not allowing her to give an explanation. And then, “At least I had the guts to tell you.”

That one line says all that’s necessary, and the script doesn’t elaborate. At some time in the past, their relationship was rocky, he had a dalliance, told her, and then it’s likely she too temporarily strayed. For the script to enlarge on the past would have been pointless, since everything is there in that one line, together with Meriem’s silent struggle, so movingly depicted by relative newcomer Ben Abdallah. While Fares’ inner storm rages in ever expanding ways, her devastation feels like an implosion, and the balance between the two is riveting.

Organ donation is a relatively new thing in Tunisia, and the wait list is too long to offer much hope. Fares avoids interacting with his wife while Meriem desperately tries tracking down the former colleague she slept with that one time 12 years ago. Outside the hospital, Fares is approached by a sympathetic man introducing himself as Mr. Chokri (Slah Msaddak), who takes him to a state-of-the-art private clinic nearby and tells him that for a price, he can have a liver available the following day. The implication is that the organs are coming from people dying in the revolution in Libya, but a bit later, the reality of how the organs are harvested is made horrifyingly clear. Barsaoui largely manages to de-sensationalize even this part, at first discreetly showing only children’s legs as they’re being herded together, though these sequences are tonally mismatched with the main story. Notwithstanding this temporary distraction, these scenes remain a powerful part of the narrative and add a further punch in the gut.

The evenhanded way in which the script gives equal space to husband and wife is one of the film’s chief satisfactions, and both actors inhabit their roles with a gripping degree of authenticity. Bouajila is the better known of the two thanks to “Days of Glory,” “Omar Killed Me” and others, and he brings an intense energy to the character, raging against the perceived assault on his masculinity coming from two fronts: One is his helplessness in the face of his son’s possible death, and the other as a cuckolded husband (his dalliance, of course, deserves forgiveness, whereas hers … ). Ben Abdallah’s is the quieter role but equally stark in its overwhelming anguish; awards will surely accrue.

Shooting in Scope, DP Antoine Héberlé beautifully captures the closeness of the family at the start, tightly grouped together in the SUV against the expanse of the Tunisian desert, and then uses the space to isolate the characters, each grieving in their own way. Controlled handheld camerawork furthers this intimacy while still allowing for moments of unexpected visual poetry, like a shot of the desert at dawn that allows Fares, and the viewer, to temporarily breathe again before facing the unknown.

Film Review: 'A Son'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Aug. 30, 2019. Running time: 96 MIN. (Original titles: “Bik Eneich,” “Un fils”)

Production: (Tunisia-France-Lebanon-Qatar) A Hakka Distribution (in Tunisia), Jour2Fête (in France) release of a Cinetelefilms, Dolce Vita Films, 13 Prod., Metafora Prod., Sunnyland Film Art Group, Schortcut Films, Jour2Fête production. (International sales: Jour2Fête, Paris.) Producers: Habib Attia, Marc Irmer, Chantal Fischer. Co-producers: Cyrille Perez, Gilles Perez, Etienne Ollagnier, Sarah Chazelle, Anas Azrak, Faycal Hassairi, Georges Schoucair, Myriam Sassine, Antoine Khalife.

Crew: Director, writer: Mehdi M. Barsaoui. Camera (color, widescreen): Antoine Héberlé. Editor: Camille Toubkis. Music: Amine Bouhafa.

With: Sami Bouajila, Najla Ben Abdallah, Youssef KhemiriNoomen Hamda, Qasim Rawane, Slah Msaddak, Mohamed Ali Ben Jemaa

Music By: , Sondos Belhassen, Najoua Zouheir, Habib Attia. (Arabic, French dialogue)

More Film


    Asier Altuna Preps Basque Historical Drama ‘Karmele the Hour of Waking Together’

    Basque cinema is booming, and director Asier Altuna is part of the vanguard leading it forward. The Spanish filmmaker, behind 2005 Youth Award winner “Aupa Etxebeste!” and 2015 Best Basque Film “Amama” at the San Sebastián Intl. Film Festival, attended this year’s Ventana Sur Proyecta sidebar with his next project, “Karmele, the Hour of Waking [...]

  • The Day is Long and Dark

    Francisco Barreiro Cast in Upcoming Julio Hernández Cordón Project (EXCLUSIVE)

    Julio Hernández Cordón, one of Mexico’s most-awarded independent filmmakers over the last decade, has found the leading man for his next feature “The Day is Long and Dark (My Friends are Vampires),” in Fantastic Fest best actor winner Francisco Barreiro, star of Adrián García Bogliano’s “Here Comes the Devil.”. Barreiro’s casting was shared with Variety from Buenos [...]

  • Macabre

    Rio Fest’s Compact Edition Opens Amidst Sectorial Crisis

    RIO DE JANEIRO  — The 21st Rio Intl. Film Fest opens Monday Dec. 9t with the screening of Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” in the Odeon landmark theater. The smaller than usual edition, which was almost cancelled due to the lack of municipal backing, reflects the crisis of Brazil’s film sector, involved in a battle with the administration [...]

  • Papa-YouTuber

    Peru’s ‘Papa YouTuber’ Goes Global (EXCLUSIVE)

    Argentine sales agency FilmSharks Int’l label The Remake Company has sold remake rights at Ventana Sur to Peruvian family comedy hit “Papa YouTuber” (“YouTuber Dad”) to Mexico’s Cinepolis and Italy’s Colorado Films, with several other territories pending. Advanced discussions are underway in Germany, with Spain, France and the U.S. also pending. “The U.S. deal will [...]

  • Elia Suleiman attends the screening of

    'Pleasure Is Extremely Political,' Palestinian Filmmaker Elia Suleiman Says

    In a freewheeling masterclass held at the Marrakech Film Festival on Thursday, director Elia Suleiman offered as concise a mission statement as can be, defining his guiding beliefs in four short words. “Pleasure is extremely political,” said the Palestinian director, whose films have approached the fraught nature of life in the occupied territories with a [...]

  • Panel-Ventana-Sur-2019-1

    Ventana Sur: Industry Luminaries Converge, Talk Women In Cinema

    BUENOS AIRES – Ventana Sur’s Opening Windows conference series welcomed an esteemed line-up of women in film to Buenos Aires’ UCA campus on Wednesday afternoon for a panel that sought to familiarize the audience with the enormous weight of breaking into a male-dominated industry throughout the years. Among the panelists was Argentine Producer Lita Stantic, [...]


    Eurimages Winning Project ‘Almamula’ Stands Out at Ventana Sur’s Proyecta

    Juan Sebastian Torales arrived at this year’s Ventana Sur Proyecta showcase for Latin American projects as one of the event’s most buzzed up debutants with his upcoming semi-autobiographical feature “Almamula.” In September, Torales and producer Pilar Peredo, from France’s Tu Vas Voir, pitched the project at San Sebastian’s Co-production Forum, where it won the Eurimages [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content