Since 2012, more than 100 children have been conceived using the smuggled-out sperm of incarcerated Palestinians — or so it is claimed by the end titles of Mohamed Diab’s “Amira.” But here, this phenomenon, the mechanics of which make for a genuinely riveting first act, is somehow judged not dramatically fertile enough to carry an entire film. Instead, Diab’s increasingly tin-eared, hysterical story, co-written with his siblings Khaled and Sherin Diab, devolves into a socio-politically dubious and narratively nonsensical muddle, which may actually be a disguised blessing. The portrait of Palestinian identity it finally presents is so superficial and regressive that its saving grace is that it’s also very difficult to believe.
Proud “daughter of a hero,” 17-year-old Amira (Tara Abboud) knows she was conceived in this unconventional manner. Her freedom-fighter father Nawar (Ali Suleiman, delivering the film’s best, most affecting performance) married her mother Warda (Saba Mubarak) while already serving out his sentence in an Israeli prison. Husband and wife have never actually shared a bed. Instead, in the years since Nawar bribed a guard to pass on his sperm sample to Warda, who then used it to get pregnant with Amira, their conjugal life has amounted to a few stolen moments of phone sex conducted via illicit cellphone.
Aspiring photographer Amira is officially registered as the child of Nawar’s brother. But though she has only ever met him during closely monitored prison visits, she is fiercely attached to Nawar and outspokenly loyal to the cause of Palestinian independence, to which she ardently believes her father is a martyr. By contrast, she has a strange, strained disdain for her beautiful, saintly mother. Somehow all the sacrifices Warda has made in becoming the dutiful wife of a man in prison are nothing in Amira’s eyes. In her photoshopped images of herself and her father in exotic locations around the world, Warda is nowhere to be seen, and when Warda dares to plead, albeit meekly, for a little bit of compassion from her daughter, Amira’s response is contemptuous: “You think about yourself enough,” she hisses, despite there being no evidence of Warda ever thinking of herself at all.
The dramatic landscape thus established in this opening third is intriguing, and the tenor of Amira’s relationships — not just with her parents but with Nawar’s close-knit extended family and the local boy with whom she has a tentative romance — do raise subtly provocative questions about growing up in the very eye of the storm of Palestinian-Israeli relations. And when Nawar suggests to Warda that they have a second child by the same means, it seems that the stage is set for such questions to be amplified, this time mediated through bright, pugnacious Amira’s naively uncompromising point of view. But then a bombshell lands, skewing the whole film off this promising axis into far more salacious and credulity-stretching territory: Nawar is sterile, and has always been, so he cannot be Amira’s biological father.
On the back of his well-received prior features “Clash” and “Cairo 678,” Diab was tapped to direct the upcoming Marvel series “Moon Knight,” and it may well be that his sensibilities are best suited to an episodic format. Certainly, his glossy style, accentuated by DP Ahmed Gabr’s slick, saturated imagery and Khaled Dagheri’s emphatic score, gives “Amira” the look and feel of a TV drama, which is then only heightened by the soap operatic nature of the later twists, as the menfolk close ranks against Warda, literally imprisoning her for her refusal to confess to her infidelity. Amira goes into an existential tailspin, which only worsens once the truth of her paternity is revealed.
Along the way, Amira misguidedly casts suspicion on her mild-mannered, kindly schoolteacher. She pushes away the dogged devotion of her boyfriend. She questions everything about herself and her mother, and nothing about the structure of a society that, as the film claims, would hold her personally responsible for her own parentage, and would regard her with hostile suspicion because of archaic notions of female purity and blood lineage. Indeed, one of the film’s most galling aspects is its tacit, sentimental admiration for Amira and Warda’s willingness to sacrifice themselves on the pyre of patriarchal, biologically determinist expectation, when it never actually investigates or critiques those expectations. Instead, the deeply fraught, politically explosive and highly emotive issues surrounding Palestinian identity are cynically mined for increasingly screechy and unconvincing “human drama” in which actual humanity, and recognizably human behavior, are in depressingly short supply.