There are many American viewers who will not want to work through the subtitles (the original dialogue is Arabic and French). There are no Hollywood stars in the cast. The scene sequence jumps back and forth in time, between mother and daughter characters who look similar, so the viewer has to pay close attention to know when we’re switching eras. And though the specific Middle Eastern country involved is intentionally left vague, there’s still a lot of historical background that the movie assumes the viewer will know, including alliances between religious groups that shift depending on developing political situations. But despite these difficulties, the open-minded moviegoer will want to seek out this film, because it leaves such a lasting impression.
We begin in the office of a stolid notary, a French Canadian (Remy Girard), who’s reading a last will and testament to Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne Marwan (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin), the deceased’s grown children. The careful, circumspect notary has a particular interest in this case, because the deceased, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), worked for him for 17 years as a secretary. He says she was “like one of the family.” He then reads to the survivors her startling requests: that her body not be buried until her children complete the assignments they are now given: Jeanne to find her father, and Simon his brother, and hand over sealed envelopes which their mother had written before she died.
Simon and Jeanne are completely stunned. They thought their father was dead. They didn’t know they had a brother. They do not wish to drop out of their lives and journey to the Middle East. Simon just storms out of the room, exclaiming that they can bury his mother any way they want, but he’s not buying into any of this.
Jeanne, though, is obviously torn. She has a life, as an assistant professor of (theoretical) mathematics at the university. But she considers it a sacred obligation to fulfill the dying wishes of her mother. And so she journeys to the land she’s never seen, her mother’s birthplace, and discovers there some explosive secrets that completely rock her world. She calls her twin brother, begging him to come, and finally he does. And he, too, is completely flabbergasted by what they learn there, from older people who still remember their mother when she was young, and knew something about her tumultuous life during an incendiary time in their country’s history.
If you choose to see this film, you, too, will become enmeshed with the characters in their mind-boggling quest for their own identities, building up to an unforgettable conclusion. Sure, there are plot holes (particularly the sudden acquisition of foreign language skills), and some confusing screenplay, but for the adventurous movie viewer the startling impact makes it well worth tolerating these imperfections.
Ronald P. Salfen is co-pastor of United Presbyterian Church, Greenville, Texas.