I must confess I’ve never seen any of Radu Mihaileanu’s previous four features (the most recent of which was 2008’s The Concert), but going on what colleagues told me about them, I had fairly low expectations for this, a modern-day ‘fairy tale’ set in a village ‘somewhere between North Africa and the Middle East’. As if that press-book description were not already a little off-putting in its vagueness, there was the not wholly irrelevant fact that this was a movie in Arabic and dealing with Arabic life which had been made by a Romanian-born Jew who for years has lived and worked in France: how promising was that in terms of authenticity?
Perhaps the low expectations helped. Not that I’d make any great claims for the film. But it does have a certain energy, slick commercial appeal, and even contemporary relevance – if you like your messages simple, straightforward and somewhat obvious. It tells of a Lysistrata-style sex-strike embarked on by some of the female inhabitants of the aforementioned village; their complaint is that they’re not treated as equals by their menfolk, who are mostly perfectly happy to sit around all day drinking tea while the women always have to climb a mountain to fetch water, spend most of their lives in high- risk pregnancy, and generally serve as drudges while being denied an education. What the strikers would like for starters is a water fountain installed in the village; but traditionalists – male and female alike – fail or refuse to see there’s a problem.
Clearly this is a heavily loaded story for all but the staunchest reactionary (who probably wouldn’t approve of feelgood movies, anyway, especially ones boasting songs that have ‘poetic’ lyrics packed with sexual innuendo), and Mihaileanu evidently knows how to push the right buttons. He has assembled an attractive, colourful cast (Leila Bekhti, Saleh Bakri, Hafsia Herzi, Biyouna et al), the settings are picturesque, the music and dancing are enjoyable (if hardly exhilarating or notable for any particular expertise), and the plot has its rousing moments. It’s far from sophisticated fare – the moral arguments are mostly dealt with in fairly black-and-white terms – and the characters are little more than stock types, but it has energy, enthusiam, pace and good intentions. And that verbal innuendo really is quite fascinating!