In what has become a Middle East-set movie cliché, border crossings come to symbolize the region’s physical, cultural, and psychological divisions in Israeli director Eran Riklis’s The Syrian Bride, a multifaceted story about a family’s wedding day preparations. In the Golan Heights city of Majdal Shams, the Druze—a sect derived partly from Islam whose nationality, split between Israel and Syria, is technically classified as “undefined”—prepare to celebrate Bachar El Assad’s ascension to the Syrian presidency by marching at the Israel-Syria border, a location also of interest to the Salm household, whose engaged daughter Mona (Clara Khoury) will soon permanently cross the border in order to marry a Syrian television star (Derar Sliman) she’s never met. As Mona solemnly prepares to leave her family and become a Syrian, the fractured clan endeavors to maintain unity amid both the arrival of son Hattem (Eyad Sheety), long-exiled by his father Hammed (Makram Khoury) for marrying a Russian (Evelyn Kaplun), and the contentiousness between Amal (a phenomenal Hiam Abbass), who desperately wants to study social work at a university, and her imperious husband Amin (Adnan Tarabshi).
The inability to communicate becomes, in The Syrian Bride, a problem both political and personal, with Mona’s ultimate difficulties securing passage from Israel to Syria (reminiscent of the nightmarish limbo of Danis Tanovich’s No Man’s Land) a case study in diplomatic arrogance compounded by bureaucratic irrationality, as well as a catalyst for the reconciliation of intolerance-fueled familial obstinacy. Touching on the destructiveness of patriarchal control and culturally entrenched prejudice, the film—thanks in large part to Riklis’s trenchant script, co-written with Palestinian feminist journalist Suha Arraf—has a knack for locating the soul of its characters in casual, fleeting moments. And though it eventually can’t muster much more than a “can’t we all just be reasonable and talk this thing through?” solution to the Middle East’s detrimental divisions, at least it refuses to overtly verbalize what’s made apparent through Riklis’s scope-aided direction, which generates a sense of disconnection through its synthesis of sprawling vistas with severe close-ups.
More affecting than The Syrian Bride‘s pertinent international issues, however, is its portrait of Islamic culture’s systemic subjugation of its female population, an oppression so deeply ingrained in the society’s fabric that Amal, a vibrant modern woman imprisoned by her culture’s strict socio-religious restrictions, only registers bemusement at discovering that she finds speaking to brother Hattem face to face more uncomfortable than writing him letters. Hypocrisy reigns supreme in Riklis’s film, with traveling salesman lothario Marwan (Ashraf Barhoun) celebrated for his globetrotting sexual conquests while his female relatives are denied basic free will. And thus when the domineering Hammed (Makram Khoury), who it’s implied has arranged his daughter’s betrothal without so much as a query about her own wishes, bids her farewell at the Israel-Syria boundary with “Do only what is right for you,” the crushing irony of the sentiment is made all the more devastating by its heartfelt sincerity.