Film Review: Tunisian Drama ‘A Son’ Exquisitely Details The Human Cost of Revolution
11-year-old Aziz needs a liver transplant after being seriously injured during a terrorist ambush while on holiday in 2011. At the hospital, a family secret will be revealed.
Director: Mehdi Barsaoui
Cast: Sami Bouajila, Najla Ben Abdallah, Youssef Khemiri Noomen Hamda, Qasim Rawane, Slah Msaddak, Mohamed Ali Ben Jemaa
Language: Arabic, French
Runtime: 96 minutes
Intense, intimate and expertly crafted, Tunisian drama A Son intricately details how politics is able to destroy even the most well-off families in the Middle East. One stray bullet is all it takes to upend a family’s apparent stability while bringing into focus how the entanglement between politics and religion in Tunisia plays into the fate of a boy’s life.
The film has a deceptively straightforward premise. Fares (Sami Bouajila) and Meriam (Najla Ben Abdallah) both hold high-paying jobs. Together in their expensive car, they journey home from their holiday in southern Tunisia with their young son Aziz (Youssef Khemari).
Unbeknownst to them, the Arab Spring is sweeping the region and the family soon find themselves amidst a terrorist ambush, with a stray bullet leaving Aziz in a life-threatening state. As the boy fights for his life in the hospital, Meriam reveals a long-hidden secret to her husband which splinters the couple.
Despite being set in distant Tunisia and in the context of the Arab Spring, these elements hardly hinder A Son for those unfamiliar. The film packs a surprising depth of mystery, made even more alluring with its terrific pacing and storytelling. A Son maneuvres with maturity and confidence; providing an excellent example of “Show, Don’t Tell”.
Details on past events are mostly skimped and left to be deciphered by one-sentence explanations. Yet, the film hardly feels frustrating nor shorthanded. The weight of those events and the struggles that unfold for the couple are acutely detailed by expert leading performances. The anguish felt by both parent is painfully apparent even if they differ by how they are expressed.
Bouajila brings compelling performances between his transformation from a loving family man to a betrayed husband. Ben Abdallah equals the intensity but balloons it all internally through distraught expressions and heartrending grief. While their arguments stem from the revealed secret, there are hints peppered throughout that both are victims of the supposed crime.
Weaved in between is the frustrating circumstances they face to get the help their son needs, with well-meaning doctors having their hands tied by religion and culture. However, A Son cannot just be seen as a critique of religious fundamentalism either; there is irony accorded to how the couple’s statuses, liberal beliefs, and reliance on money have led them down their paths.
Audiences can be left for hours digesting the film’s plot long after the end credits. It’s a near-perfect measurement of just the right amount of details, emotions, and intrigue to keep A Son gripping. Its only flaw is a minor tonal detour halfway through the film, where it reaches out to highlight the atrocities of ongoing conflicts. Yet even then, it’s a detour that still lands on a poetic and memorable note.
What is left unsaid is still seen and heard. The brilliant use of silence, again, perfectly highlights the film’s confidence and its attention to brevity. Without overplaying its hand, the void leaves out what could be high-drama conversations. However, the silence only adds to the overall emotional weight.
On a similar wavelength, the film’s cinematography use of space is straight-forward yet mesmerising. It first depicts the family’s tight-knit relationship, before splitting them apart and leaving wide-open desert plains to be the film’s only breathing space.
A Son is textbook excellence. Through masterful storytelling, performances, and use of film techniques, the film exudes confidence. It’s remarkable handling of a raw and thought-provoking tale that begs to be experienced, discussed, and dissected.
A Son joins the lineup of this year’s Middle East Film Festival. The festival celebrates the best of cinema from the region with six critically-acclaimed films. These will be screened online in Singapore for the first time from 19 February to 3 March 2021 on streaming platform KinoLounge. Find out more about the festival here.