Last year I saw a number of Israeli productions ranging from good ("Medurat Hashevet" a.k.a Campfire) to very good (the French-Israeli co-produced "Mon Tresor" a.k.a Or) to disappointing (Ushpizin) to plain terrible ("LaLehet Al HaMayim" a.k.a Walk on Water). What I have in my hands now is the heavily promoted Ha Kala Ha-Surit, better known in America as The Syrian Bride (2004), which appears to be a massive Israeli/German/French production highly decorated by a number of important film institutions.
I could not see The Syrian Bride at home although it was screened during the Chicago International Film Festival and though I knew that a DVD release was possibly in the making I nearly forgot about it after almost a year passed away and no US distributor stepped up to promote the film (a US release as it seems is finally on the horizon). Fortunately enough a Canadian-based distrib was able to put the film on the market and I could not wait to get my hands on it.
The Syrian Bride transports us back to an area of the Middle East which often appears on TV networks around the world. The Golan Heights, a piece of land shattered by the bitter rivalry between Syria and Israel, is where the director of The Syrian Bride has decided to film this rather unusual story of romance. Amongst these stunningly beautiful but occupied by Syrian and Israeli forces hills the Syrian Bride (Clara Khoury) awaits a man (Derar Sliman) whom she has never seen. She only knows that he is a famous comedian who often appears on the best show in town-the Syrian equivalent of our beloved The West Wing.
On the day of her wedding the Syrian bride is to be taken to the nearby Syrian border where an Israeli official will have to approve her departure from the Golan Heights and a Syrian clerk will have to sign her papers before she enters Syria. However, once she leaves the Golan Heights the Syrian Bride will no longer be able to come back. Why? After Israel took away the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 the ethnic Druze nationals, who consider themselves Syrians, have been virtually living as foreigners on their own land. They do not hold Israeli passports, they do not consider the Golan Heights an Israeli territory, and most importantly they are often subject of unfair treatment from both Israeli and Syrian officials. As a result the new life which the Syrian Bride is about to begin will have to be "approved" by those who often exchange bullets when the geographical identity of the Golan Heights is being "discussed".
With a fascinating premise for a love story The Syrian Bride is an exceptionally well-photographed film revealing breathtaking vistas from a region with a deadly history. Touching upon such controversial subjects as religion, racism, and social identity this is a film that tiptoes on the verge of being a comedy as well as being a drama with some serious messages in it. Certainly the unusual relationship which the director has chosen as a premise for his film is not too far off the absurd system which Druze-Syrians have to endure in real life. Constant humiliation from both Israeli and Syrian officials is indeed something that they have come to regard as a natural part of their daily routines.
"Natural" however is the last term I would use to describe the lives of these forgotten by the civilized world people. Furthermore, aside from falling in love and hoping for the things you and I usually take for granted under the light comedy structure of The Syrian Bride (was this film really meant to be a comedy?) there is a world which is anything but funny. In fact, it is painfully bitter as those who live in it are faced with what I can only describe as insanity.
I don't quite know how the Israeli Film Academy chooses the films that best represent the current state of their film industry but I am shocked that last year The Syrian Bride was not selected as their official Oscar entry. The spectacular cinematography, the beautiful soundtrack, and most importantly the impeccable acting (the Syrian Bride's father Hammed/Makram Khoury absolutely stole my heart) should have granted this film a substantially better exposure. While not a masterpiece breaking new boundaries The Syrian Bride is quite possibly the best Israel has produced in a very long time.
In 2004 The Syrian Bride was nominated for 7 Israeli Film Academy Awards including Best Film, Best Director (Eran Riklis), Best Actor (Makram Khoury), and Best Actress (Hiam Abbass). The film also won the Audience Award at the Locarno Film Festival and the FIPRESCI Prize, Grand Prix des Ameriques Award, the People's Choice Award, and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury during the Montreal World Film Festival.
Official Film site and trailer:
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and enhanced for widescreen TV's this Canadian produced DVD looks very good. I do not see any signs of heavy digital manipulation and as far as I am concerned the print has been flagged properly. Colors are deep and vibrant, contrast is handled very well, and there is no print damage that I was able to spot. Overall, a great looking DVD which does this beautiful film justice.
How Does the DVD Sound?
Presented with its original Dolby Digital Arabic track (with portions of French, English, Russian, and Hebrew) the audio quality is indeed very good. It would have been great if the distributors would have opted for a more elaborate mix but I am more than satisfied with the result. Listen to the haunting music of this film…it truly is magnificent!!
With optional white French and English subtitles.
In addition to a very good audio/video presentation The Syrian Bride also offers some very exciting extras. There is an insightful "Making Of" where we learn about the filming process as well as the numerous edits the rough film cut underwent. The director of the film also speaks about his special affection for features where everything clicks-from music to acting to cinematography. A large portion of the extra is in Hebrew and could be viewed either with English or French subtitles. Next, there is a great commentary with the director of the film Eran Riklis (in English) and Karen Durbin from the New York Times where the director walks us through the history of the region. If you know very little about the film as a whole this commentary is terrific as it gives a great look at the history of a conflict which still rages on. Last but not least there is the theatrical trailer for The Syrian Bride and a short info page about the Canadian-based distrib Mongrel Media.
What a beautiful, beautiful film!! Eran Riklis has managed to capture the splendor of a region known for its controversial history in a manner I haven't witnessed in too many Israeli films. But I am saddened to see that instead of recognizing this spectacular picture with an Oscar nod the Israeli Film Academy went on to support more "socially-relevant" projects. What a missed opportunity, this film has it all.
As to this Canadian release…I would not hesitate to give it the highest possible mark. It is simple yet very elegant providing everything a foreign film needs. Great work Mongrel Media!! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.