In a small Arabic village in Israel, at what is meant to be the emotional crescendo of a crowded, elaborate wedding, several cages are opened to release a flight of doves into the air. Except “a waddle of doves” might be a more appropriate term, given the birds’ reluctance to spread their wings, as they tip-claw tentatively into the outside world. One of the funniest visual gags in Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin’s “Let It Be Morning” is also its most telling: This is a farce of stasis, not frenzied activity. By holding his characters literally captive — as the village is held, absurdly but violently, under siege — Kolirin forges an actual microcosm through which to examine the social and political status of Israel’s Arab community.
The comedy that results is wry and thoughtfully observed, with its feet planted almost obstinately on the ground. While there’s a topicality to this snapshot of Israeli-Palestinian tensions — adapted from a 2006 novel by Palestinian author Sayed Kashua, though it feels up to date — that will ease global distribution, Kolirin’s fourth feature is too melancholic and low-key to match the crossover success of his 2007 breakout “The Band’s Visit.” There will almost certainly be no Tony-sweeping Broadway musical made from “Let There Be Morning,” even if the film does make effective use of Sia’s lung-busting ballad “Chandelier” at multiple points: the kind of cry for uninhibited living that the film’s characters, up to a point, keep inside them.
Our hero, after a fashion, is Sami (Alex Bakri), a middle-class Palestinian businessman based in Jerusalem, who has returned to his remote home village for his younger brother’s dove-disadvantaged wedding. Accompanying him are his glamorous but frustrated wife Mina (ensemble standout Juna Suleiman) and their young son, not to mention his own superiority complex. A fully converted city boy, Sami regards the dusty settlement of his youth with minimal nostalgia, and a hint of condescension toward family and former friends.
He’s keen to get home as soon as possible, where business and a mistress impatiently await; the Israeli army, however, has other ideas. Without warning or explanation, the village is placed under military lockdown: no exits, no exceptions. The siege, it emerges, is intended to smoke out illegal West Bank Palestinians in the village, including those working on the construction of an intended second home for Sami’s family. Thus does Sami find himself complicit in their exploitation, even as he attempts to protect them from the authorities — a bind that typifies the film’s quietly cutting view of conflict and class division within the region’s Arab population. (It’s a point that was underlined in less planned fashion at the film’s premiere in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard strand: In protest against the film’s “Israeli” classification at the festival, the film’s Palestinian cast refused to attend.)
The satire in Kolirin’s script is dry and pointed, with pockets of whimsical absurdity. The Israeli army is represented in the film by a single dozy, guitar-strumming soldier at the lockdown border, rather undermining the power and menace of military forces. Yet the siege holds anyway, as the villagers are increasingly waylaid by internal discord. “In this village, we can’t get two people together for backgammon,” someone ruefully observes. Kolirin’s plotting in this regard occasionally veers toward the clunky. The bumbling tragicomic relief figure of Abed (Ehab Elias Salami), a sad-sack cabbie and left-behind friend of Sami, follows a somewhat obvious arc, serving principally to underline his pal’s privilege and alienation from his past.
Female characters, too, get somewhat short shrift. The film could stand to dwell more on Sami’s relationship with the weary, more-knowing-than-he-knows Mina, not least because Suleiman’s taut, funny, physically wired performance raises the temperature of every scene she’s in. Coloring Sami’s unsympathetic moroseness with the merest hint of mischief, Bakri gives the film a more reserved center — apt enough, since “Let It Be Morning” is a comedy that ultimately thrives on quiet and stillness. That extends to cinematographer Shai Goldman’s poised, sand-blasted tableaux of Sami’s village-sized prison, which grow more panoramic, and more receptive to the surrounding landscape, as he opens his eyes.