Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Bicycle dreams


Waad Mohammed as the title character in director Haifaa Al Mansour's Wadjda. Photo: Tobias Kownatzki, Razor Film, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
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In Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean''s still-revelatory masterpiece about the foundation of today's Middle East morass, not a single live woman appears onscreen during nearly fours of sand opera. In what one might dub Wadjda of Arabia, first-time Saudi female filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour's profoundly moving first Saudi-shot film, a spunky 10-year-old girl attempts to ride her same-age boyfriend's training-wheels bicycle while wearing designer sneakers and sporting hand tattoos.

Right out of the box, we witness a budding if dangerous friendship between Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) and slightly haughty rich boy Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). In a deeply conservative yet insanely wealthy Islamic society, the thought that a man hearing a female's voice is seeing her naked seems over-the-top, but such is the reality that Wadjda and Abdullah face a few years down the road if their friendship persists despite a million brutal barriers.

"Cover your face. I'll say you're my sister."

"No one will believe you. I'm too good-looking to be related to you. If I get my bike, I'll beat you in a race."

"You don't realize that girls don't ride bikes. Losing to a girl would be a double loss."

A sign of how smart this movie is: a slippery subplot has Wadjda getting her boy to do her bidding, even when it comes to confronting one of her mom's surly drivers.

Director Al Mansour confesses that she herself was granted the perk of a green bike, as well as TV movies, by an unusually liberal dad. But she is careful to stick to the benign business of a mildly rebellious girl's small pranks and deceptions in pursuit of just how big a tent her personal freedom can fill. Alongside Wadjda's story is the discreetly told tale of her mom's (acclaimed TV actress Reem Abdullah) struggle to prevent Wadja's father (Sultan Al Assaf) from taking a second wife to get a male heir.

It's at her sexually segregated primary school that Wadja feels the biggest pressure to cover her head and surrender her dreams. The headmistress punishes her classmates for possessing a fan magazine or a makeup kit. Sensing that Wadjda is different, a far greater threat to the system, the head urges her to enter a Koran-reading contest. First prize, as it happens, would buy the cherished bike.

While not directly challenging the status quo in a country that lacks cinemas and where adult women must be ferried about by often-resentful male chauffeurs, Wadjda provides a manual on how to ever-so-slowly undermine centuries of gender oppression. Hovering in the background is the worrisome reality that the system has ways to inoculate itself against overt rebellion.

Fans of Wadjda will also appreciate the acclaimed Iranian cinema of children's stories: thinly disguised allegories for a host of adult fights over deeply taboo subjects. In particular, find Iranian director Majid Majidi's 1998 classic Children of Heaven, about a brother and sister's bid to find a free space in Mullah-ruled Tehran while sharing a single pair of shoes.

You Will Be My Son French director Gilles Legrand's dark fable concerns the intergenerational fight for power at a prosperous provincial winery. Those in love with movies about mysteries of the grape (Sideways, Bottle Shock) may get pleasantly tipsy as Legrand and co-writer Delphine de Vigan go into the small details that determine the success or failure of a year's production. There's a virtual orgy of tasting, sipping, and wild reveries about the aromas wafting from a prized year's batch.

At the story's core is the attempt of winery owner Paul de Marseuk (Niels Arestrup, seen by queer audiences as the brutal Sicilian prison gang boss in A Prophet) to disinherit his feckless son and heir Martin (Lorant Deutsch). The son's crime is his lack of passion for the calling. While Martin spends his days jogging and tending to his seemingly infertile wife, Paul sees his precious winery foundering. An emotional father/son moment happens down in the winery's cellar, as Paul reveals a shocking family skeleton: that Martin's grandfather drowned in one of the vats.

"In a vat?"

"That's right, during fermentation, the carbon dioxide knocked him out, and he fell right in."

"Why didn't you tell the truth?"

"1963 was an average year. It would have sunk the winery. Would you buy a wine that had marinated a stiff?"

Paul uses every trick in the book and the Code Napoleon to rob Martin of his inheritance and pass the business on to the son of his trusted estate manager. You Will Be My Son is a stark parable on the viability of French notions of meritocracy and the underlining social contract. Arestrup radiates the diabolical swagger it takes both to do bad things and to feel good about oneself before, during and after. He would be perfect as a Borgia Pope or, say, Vladimir Putin.

In the American spin on this father/son shootout, the underrated Bottle Shock, Bill Pullman's raging Sonoma County wine dad takes out his frustrations on son Chris Pine's hippie locks and womanizing by daily pummeling the kid in an outdoor boxing ring. After watching how far French dad goes to emotionally and financially castrate his son, I'd prefer an honest punch to the groin.


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