Humor can be a great weapon for directors who deal in grave subjects. Danis Tanovic proved that with No Man's Land, his Oscar-winning black comedy about the Bosnian-Serbian war. Elia Suleiman accomplished something similar with Divine Intervention, his absurdist take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now comes The Syrian Bride, a wry new film from Israel about a young Druze woman who is trapped at the border between the Golan Heights and Syria on her wedding day, unable to leave one country or enter the other due to ridiculous bureaucratic pettiness. Directed by an Israeli, co-written by a Palestinian, and featuring a predominantly Arab-Israeli cast, The Syrian Bride reminds us that tears of frustration are sometimes indistinguishable from tears of laughter.
Mona's wedding day is a mixture of sweet anticipation, profound sadness, and dread. The youngest of four children, she lives with her mother and father in Majdal Shams, the largest Druze village in the Golan Heights. Hers is an arranged marriage, as is the custom in traditional families; she has never met her husband-to-be, a well-known sitcom star on Syrian television.
As if that weren't enough to unnerve her, Mona (Clara Khoury) finds herself at the mercy of regional politics. Because the Golan Heights has been considered Israeli territory ever since Syria was forced to cede the land following the 1967 war, Mona will not be permitted to return to her home village even for a visit once she crosses over to the other side. The thought of never seeing her family again, especially her beloved older sister Amal (the incredible Hiam Abbass, from Satin Rouge and Paradise Now), makes her impending marriage a bittersweet prospect.
Mona's family is not even allowed to attend the wedding: They must say their goodbyes on the Israeli side of the border, at which point Mona will walk down a short road a kind of no man's land that separates the two countries and enter Syria. Standing at the Israeli checkpoint, she can only smile and wave at the bridegroom and his family, who wait several hundred yards away behind the chain-link fence on the Syrian side.
The marriage is taking place on the same day that Bashar al-Assad is due to succeed his father as ruler of Syria. Israeli security is concerned that pro-Syrian Arabs living in the Golan Heights may create a disturbance. Because of this, they are loath to allow Mona's father, Hammed (Makram J. Khoury, playing father to his real-life daughter), a leading political activist who is on probation from jail, to accompany his daughter to the border.
Ironically, while the police try to prevent Hammed from seeing his daughter off, the family patriarch has forbidden his own eldest son, Hattem (Eyad Sheety), from attending the wedding. He has never forgiven Hattem, who lives in the Soviet Union with his Russian wife, for abandoning his roots and marrying outside the Druze community. When Hattem, his wife, and son show up in Majdal Shams anyway, Hammed refuses to acknowledge them.
Mona's sister Amal attempts to defy another kind of boundary: the one that culture and tradition have assigned her. Married to a man she does not love, she has raised two daughters, and now, against her husband's wishes, she is determined to get a university education.
While members of the family try to work out their individual problems, the Syrian border guards refuse to allow Mona into the country because Israel is using a new exit stamp that the Syrians stubbornly refuse to recognize. Jeanne (Julie-Anne Roth), an International Red Cross worker assigned to help facilitate the border crossing, engages in one-woman shuttle diplomacy, walking back and forth between the two military checkpoints, trying to work out a solution. The Israelis are amenable; the Syrians refuse to budge.
Director Eran Riklis, who co-wrote the screenplay with Palestinian TV journalist Suha Arraf, maintains just the right tone throughout, never veering into overly broad comedy. While the border situation is indeed absurd, it is also completely believable, which is one reason the film works so well.
Also excellent is the ensemble cast, whose members are not only individually strong but are utterly convincing as a family unit. Abbass, as Mona's emboldened big sister, is especially good in what turns out to be the central role. One of the best films of 2006, The Syrian Bride is neither as angry as Divine Intervention nor as hopeless as No Man's Land. Sweetened with humor, pathos, and plenty of irony, however, its message is as entertaining as it is potent.
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