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.
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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.