When Notre Musique screened at the Toronto Film Festival, Chantal Akerman—who’s never struck me as a filmmaker prone to knee-jerk sentimentality—accused Jean-Luc Godard of anti-Semitism. Judging by the handful of walkouts during the press screening of Yousry Nasrallah’s four-and-a-half hour epic Gate of the Sun at the New York Film Festival, Akerman isn’t the only one who confuses criticism of the Israeli state and its policies concerning Palestine for anti-Jewish or anti-Christian resentment. Adapted from Lebanese writer Elias Khoury’s novel of the same name, Nasrallah’s film is the spiritual and aesthetic cousin of Emir Kusturica’s Underground, another magical-realist work of activism that stirringly documents over 50 years in the lives of an oppressed people.
After Shams (“Sun”), the rebel girlfriend of the prematurely gray Dr. Khalil (Bassel Khayyat), assassinates a man outside her lover’s home, the doctor’s surrogate father falls into a coma. Resentful of the mother who abandoned him as a child and dogged by Israeli police because of his connection to Shams, Khalil looks to rescue the unconscious Younès (Hiam Abbas) in the same way the older man rescued him when he was only a boy. Heavily inspired by 1001 Arabian Nights, much of Gate of the Sun is told via flashback. Indeed, you get a sense throughout the film that its rootless Palestinian characters are midwives to history and that their only hope of keeping Palestine alive is by revisiting, reliving, sometimes even doctoring the past.
Gate of the Sun begins in 1948, with a young Younès marrying a much-younger Nahila, whose rocky relationship to her husband’s mother is the focus of the film’s first 30 minutes or so. When barrels of explosives suddenly destroy much of their village, personal dramas are violently reconfigured: louts and pigs, the men become deposed rebels; backstabbers and gossipmongers, their wives are recast as woman warriors. What begins as a petty soap opera builds into a heartbreaking passion play about Arab perseverance (in many ways, the film’s fanatic tribalism is no different than that of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, except a humane Nasrallah’s spiritual agenda is considerably less self-absorbed).
In a bravura series of scenes that span much of the film’s first half, the Israeli army cruelly forces Palestinians to move from one camp to the next; the refugees are scarcely settled in one location before a rain of gunfire ushers them to their next location. It’s a shockingly primal evocation of the rootlessness of the Palestinian people, whose anger isn’t so much directed at the (more or less) faceless Israeli army as it is at the unforgiving deity who may as well be firing the shots. Doors open to reveal the gates of hell, hordes of people are constantly ushered into the blackness of the film’s off-screen space, and what with the constant references to the sun and the moon, Nasrallah frequently likens the tragedy of the Palestinian people to a form of cosmic warfare. Not to be glib, but just as Cyndi Lauper dreamed of girls walking on the sun in “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Nasrallah dreams of replacing the U.S. flag on the moon with a Palestinian one. Implicit in both Lauper’s lyric and Nasrallah’s image is the same question: Where is there room for us?
Younès and his Nahila color history in the same way history colors them, and their separation anxiety is heightened the more the idea of a Palestinian state becomes fruitless. Both are resistance fighters: In much the same way the pregnant woman empowers herself by casting herself as a whore rather than tell the Israeli army the location of her husband’s hideout, Younès is dignified by refusing to kill a roomful of Israeli children as an act of retaliation after his own son is refused medical attention and later dies. One could argue that this is an unabashed act of hero worship, but the story’s pro-Palestinian perspective can scarcely be called anti-Semitic; if anything, the Jews and Christians in the film are conspicuous by their absence, mere supporting players in what is really a love story of fantastic proportions.
Like Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison, Nasrallah’s vision of the world is alive with heart-wrenching poeticism. (In a scene vaguely reminiscent of the opening chapter from Song of Solomon, a man is shot in the head, only it isn’t rose petals that fill the air in the violence’s wake.) The titular gate of the sun refers to an ancient cave nestled somewhere inside a fairy-tale forest, the location of which is only known to Younès and his wife Nahila. It’s one of many lyrical metaphors Nasrallah evokes throughout the film, from the olive branches Nahila frequently carries to the Tree of Life (allegedly from Roman times) that seemingly leads to her husband’s hideout.
The symbolic gate of the sun in the forest is in essence a gateway to a fantasy Palestinian paradise unclaimed by Israeli forces. Like Underground, the second, more meta half of Gate of the Sun shifts to the present and concerns children of the Palestinian revolution confronting brave new worlds and attempting to make amends for the past. While her husband is in a coma, Nahila (played for most of the film by a remarkable Rim Turkhi) returns to the home from which she was displaced many years ago. Silently but bitterly making her way through the modernized apartment, Nahila recognizes objects that she once owned, and in a seemingly ancient water jug, Nasrallah in essence holds a mirror up between two nations—one Arab, one Jewish—and forces a ritual of reconciliation. It’s a baby step, but it’s a start nonetheless.
The film’s second half is much talkier than the first, but it’s no less powerful. Khalil attempts to reconnect with his long-lost mother with the help of a French actress who comes to East Beirut for a performance of a Jean Genet play. Stepping into Beirut for the first time, Khalil is seemingly confronted with a strange nativity scene: Snow begins to fall from the sky, but it’s really foam being pumped out of a machine for a modeling shoot. (The folkloric quality of this scene and others like it are reminiscent of Volker Schlöndorff’s Circle of Deceit.) More lines of communication open and hope springs eternal when Khalil decides to takes a plunge into a river that simultaneously represents the horrors of the past and the hopes of the future. In Gate of the Sun, Palestinians may not have the right to walk on their homeland, but they do have the right to speak and dream.