So many Holocaust-themed movies have been made that a new variant on the genre might seem inconceivable. "The Wedding Song," about two 16-year-old girlfriends living in Nazi-occupied Tunis in 1942, one a devout Muslim, the other a secular Jew, handily disproves that notion.
Not that novelty is necessarily a mark of excellence. There are plenty of things wrong with "The Wedding Song," but it has moments when we seem to be peering into a world hitherto closed off from the movies – and from our own experience.
Nour (Olympe Borval) is eagerly awaiting her marriage to her cousin Khaled (Najib Oudghiri). Myriam (Lizzie Brocheré), a transplanted French Jew, is resisting her imminent betrothal to a wealthy doctor (Simon Abkarian) more than twice her age. Her mother, played by Karin Albou, who is also the film's writer-director, has arranged the wedding because money is needed to pay the huge fine newly levied on Jewish residents.
Nour and Myriam have grown up in the same courtyard and, when the movie begins, are inseparable. But the onrush of anti-Jewish propaganda takes its toll on the friendship. The Nazis, claiming solidarity with the Muslims, scatter scurrilous leaflets about the Jews. Khaled, who needs a job in order to get married, takes up with the Nazis and begins spouting hate to Nour, forbidding her to see Myriam.
The rift between the girls is especially painful to see because they were so close. In some ways, Albou encourages us to see them as smitten with each other. They are often photographed together nestling and cuddling. When Nour steals away at night for a rendezvous with Khaled, Myriam spies on their (tentative) lovemaking. When, in a graphically explicit scene, Myriam is "prepared" for her wedding night, Nour is right there to provide comfort. Although the tension between the girls is ostensibly about their religions, the subtext is carnal. Their feelings for each other run deeper, and are more complex, than with anybody else, especially their men.
This subtext somewhat muddies the film's political edge. Albou may prod us to see the breakdown between the girls as politically inspired but that's not where her heart (or her camera) lies. She's a sensualist, and the world she shows us is resplendently fleshy. She takes us into the hammam spas where the women's rinsings are like ablutions. She films female bodies in ways that, in my experience, are rare in films directed by men. There is nothing stark or leering here, just a serene casualness.
This emphasis on the female body is also integral to the movie's larger scheme – the ways in which women in this society are the chattel of men. Even Myriam's fiancé, kind and philosophic, is not immune. When Myriam's mother asks him "Would you like the bride prepared Oriental or European style?" he savors her obeisance. When Khaled emerges from his bridal bed with a blood-stained sheet, the throng of waiting women outside the bedroom door erupt in cheers for their hero.
Albou provides telling historical touches throughout. At the beginning, for example, signaling hard times, a belly dancer at a celebration for Nour's engagement is paid not with money but with food coupons. The anticolonialist sentiments toward the French, on the part of both Jews and Muslims, is deftly sketched. (They're colonialists and collaborators.) The tragedy of Jews who left France to be safe in Tunisia is emblematized by the image of the doctor being transported by cattle car to a quarry, from whence, no doubt he will soon be dispatched to a concentration camp.
"The Wedding Song," as you may have gathered, is a lumpy admixture of politics and carnality, but when it all comes together, it has a lingering force. Grade: B