Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Nicely Wound: "The String (Le Fil)" (2010)

"The String" is a tricky film. It addresses familial and religious conflict, yet provides its characters with an interesting reality that completely engaged this viewer.

Architect Malik (Antonin Stahly) has returned to Tunisia to see his recently widowed mother Sara (Claudia Cardinale). Sara has hired on handyman Bilal (Salim Kechiouche) and conservative cook Wafa (Rihab Mejri) to help her around the house. Malik is already torn between his Arab and French worlds, and has not yet come out to his mother about his other internal conflict- he is gay. He learns Bilal might also be gay, and tries to get to know the young man while still keeping a master/servant relationship. Malik is working on a mosque design, and his lesbian coworker Siryne (Ramla Ayari) wants him to father her child. Malik must confront all of these new relationships, and deal with a mother who is in denial about her son. The film's title comes from a piece of string that can be seen attached to Malik from time to time. The string represents the hold both his mother and his upbringing have on the man, and it is something he has dealt with since he was a child.

On the surface, you might assume where the film is going. You hear about strings, and overbearing mothers, and Muslim customs, and prepare for the fireworks. Co-writer/director Mehdi Ben Attia balances things perfectly, not going overboard with melodramatics and assumptions. Tunisia and its French influence are completely unknown to me, but setting this story there is educational as well as compelling. The string subplot doesn't get silly, the film is respectful of the Muslim characters without mocking them or their beliefs, and Cardinale portrays the clicheed "overbearing mother" role so elegantly and sympathetically that you cannot help but like her despite her sometimes abrasive behavior.

The Tunisian locations are stunning. The film makers don't shy away from some less than pretty urban scenes, but the beach scenes are incredible to watch. The cast is fantastic across the board. Stahly's Malik (or Hakim to his Arab friends and family) is still hurting from his father's death, and seeing his extended family again after so many months is a bit of a culture shock. Thankfully, Ben Attia does not write Bilal as some boorish caveman with no brains. Kechiouche turns him into a likable character who is also unsure about pursuing a relationship with his employer's son.

What can I say about Claudia Cardinale? I have been in love with her since "Once Upon a Time in the West," "8 1/2," and "The Pink Panther." She is older now, but still has a beautiful spark in her eye, and holds her own against the mostly younger cast. She has a great scene with Kechiouche as Sara describes being the outsider at her own wedding, and perhaps understanding what Bilal and Malik are going through.

While I would have liked to see more follow-through with a couple of subplots like the fake cop scene, the mosque's need for parking, Malik's cousin (and sex partner), and Sara's mother-in-law, "The String" is a nice little film that doesn't let its exoticism get away from it. (* * * *) out of five stars.