A long time ago, the American master of the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock, quipped that a movie must be only as long as one can hold one's bladder. And Mehdi M Barsaoui's debut feature, A Son – which was part of the ongoing Mumbai Film Festival – is a crisp 96 minutes long, and talks about a family in turmoil.
A Son happens in the balmy days of Tunisian summer of 2011. It has just been six months since the Jasmine Revolution and the fall of President Ben Ali, but just before the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi.
Barsaoui zooms in on a family picnic in southern Tunisia that turns into a terrible tragedy. Well-educated Fares (Sami Bouajila), his wife, Meriem (Najla Ben Abdallah), and their 11-year-old son, Aziz (Youssef Khemiri), are out for a day with friends. The party at the scenic Tataouine in the southeast (which was George Lucas’ inspiration for the name of Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine), is all merriment and food and wine. The fun over, the three drive back home, but on the way, Islamist rebels attack Fares' car, and although he manages to make a u-turn and speed away, a bullet pierces the frail little boy. His liver goes for a toss, and at the hospital, the doctor tells the couple that Aziz would need a liver transplant. The parents are asked to get tested so that one of them may donate a part of his or her liver. What the tests reveal threaten to break a family that was deliriously happy just hours ago, driving a wedge between the husband and wife. A dark secret tumbles out of the cupboard threatening to ruin a relationship beyond belief.
Barsaoui works out the twists and turns with marvellous brilliance, narrating the ups and downs of the couple's angst at one level and anger at another with lucidity. And in a way, that kept me enraptured and engrossed.
A Son has an unforgettable ending, and performances that are nothing short of brilliant. If Sami conveys his disappointment, pain and wounded pride in an extraordinarily controlled way, Najla portrays guilt and sorrow with subtle ease and fortitude. Powerfully penned and directed with finesse, A Son is all the more memorable since it also takes us into the seedy world of organ trade – and how this pushes people in dire medical emergencies to resort to the most scandalous, the most unlawful of activities. With minimal background score – which heightens the effect of silence and the anguish the parents have to go through – and a camera that probes without being intrusive, the movie turns out to be a winner. A work that will be remembered long after the Festival has drawn its curtains.
(Author, commentator and movie critic Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Mumbai Film Festival)
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