The Silences of the Palace (Moufida Tlatli)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

The silences of the title are those of women, and this absorbing and affecting Tunisian film, from first-time director Moufida Tlatli (who is female -- I mention it for the benefit of those who, like me, would not immediately discern the fact from her name), is frequently silent itself; like its protagonist, it spends most of its time cautiously observing. A simple story of oppression and repression, set in Tunisia both during and following French rule, it's most effective when simply contemplating the remarkably contemplative face of Hend Sabri, whose performance as the young Alia is both assured and riveting. (Ghalia Lacroix, who plays Alia as an adult, is less impressive, though admittedly she's given much less to do.) A passive protagonist can often be rather frustrating to watch, and the lack of dramatic momentum does occasionally make Silences seem longer than its 127 minutes, but both the characters and the palace's architecture -- and especially the ways in which the two relate -- held my attention more often than not. At a time when serious examinations of gender issues are sorely lacking (no, I'm afraid that Disclosure does not count), it's a welcome and thoughtful exception. I should add that I found it much more compelling than 1994's Oscar-nominated The Scent of Green Papaya, which examined similar issues from a Vietnamese perspective; this film is as open as that one was opaque.