Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 05, 2022 2:52 pm 
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Two Palestinian women trapped in an espionage thriller

Hani Abu-Assad's new movie, his third Palestinian thriller, is probably the most significant US release of the week and debuted to much interest at Toronto last fall, so it's already gotten notable reviews. In particular Anthony Lane's current New Yorker column spotlights it with his always charming, observant, and witty style devoted to his highest praise. More than other writers he has done the essential: pointed out that Manal Awad, who plays Huda, is a star, and that her panache in facing interrogation and inevitable execution by a small but STRAC (Skilled, tough, ready around the clock) Palestinian resistance team is both breathtaking and extremely cool.

What happens is that Huda, owner of the eponymous Bethlehem hairdressing salon, has been forced by Israeli intelligence, we never learn how, into entrapping selected female customers (ones, she says, whose husband's are "assholes") by drugging them and photographing them in extremely compromising poses, then commanding them to provide information to the occupiers. In the swift opening scene, so relaxed and chatty at first, she does this to Reem (Maisa Abd Alhadi), who has a baby girl and a suspicious husband and suddenly has her life ruined.

Abi-Assad's ability to grip you with an iron hand shown in his first two Palestinian thrillers (Paradise Now in 2006 and Omar in 2013, both reviewed by me at the NYFF and Oscar-nominated) is in evidence again here, even though this is a different kind of drama. Dan Mecca wrote in his Film Stage review (Sep 18, 2021), which headlines the film as "A riveting, topical spy thriller," that "Huda’s Salon recalls Hollywood mysteries from the 1940s in both its brisk pace and disarmingly simple style, resulting in a sparse, intelligent thriller."

This is an excellent description. Moreover the film is permeated by the Palestinian horror while also boldly exposing in that stark simple style - and this is the daring, original, and wholly surprising thing - the simpleminded paranoia of Palestinian men and their cruel objectification of women. This is not just a political thriller but also a devastating, economical depiction of stunted, backward machismo.

Everyone, even its programmatic detractors like IndieWire's Kate Erbland and AV Club's Mike D'Angelo (the latter justified in finding some implausibility in the action and structural weaknesses), acknowledge that this movie has a tremendous first ten minutes: that shocking entrapment. It then quickly shifts into a two-sided thriller that some reviewers think weakened by the foregone conclusion of a double sense of doom - or at least doom for Huda, whose resistance leader interrogator, known as Hasan (the excellent Ali Suliman) makes fairly clear as she herself clearly knows that she's going to die for what she's been doing and in pretty short order, so what's suspenseful about that? Reem's fate is much more nebulous. Will she be ripped apart by the resistance, or, since she hasn't done anything wrong yet and only been duped and threatened, will she just be torn asunder by her perpetually, meaninglessly jealous husband and his unfriendly family? It seems as Abu-Assad depicts it here the life of the Palestinian woman is a domestic hell already, even without being caught in the vise of occupiers and resistance.

Abu-Assad has a gift for that simple kind of frankly terrifying heightening of the Palestinian situation. And this time he gives it a whole new color by focusing on two women. It wouild be understandable if he is somewhat less in his comfort zone - if comfort is the word for movies about rage and terror - in dealing with women's situations. Anyway, the two earlier thrillers he made were more kinetic. Reem is hardly getting out of her house; Huda is locked into a chair in a subterranean hideaway to be interrogated. (That interrogation, as Lane brings out, is fascinating and unusual in the way Huda makes Hasan reveal his weak side and sustains her bold panache making him lean forward to light her cigarette "as if she were a grande dame toying with an overeager beau.")

Because the opening is so good it's hard to sustain at the same level, even with two women in parallel sequences of almost equal fatal danger. And as the initial thrill began to wear off, I began to see weaknesses in its underlying assumptions. Would this blackmailing ruse work every time? If it did, how much use will these housewives be to Israeli intelligence? And how has it even taken over a dozen entrapments for the Palestinian resistance to move on Huda? Yet one has to confess that doesn't really make any difference, because in any case, with his spot-on depictions of behavior, Abui-Assad captures the dark underbelly of the Palestinian-Israeli situation again here in every scene. But it would have worked better as a film if the action had a solider core of espionage content. One wonders then, if this is "based on actual events," as the opening intertitles say, how closely is it based on them? And then, how significant were those actual events?

The Playlist's Carlos Aguilar (again at Toronto) found Huda's Salon to be "expertly paced" and "strikingly bold in its dramatic construction, and adept at folding the macro issues into the lives of everyday residents of a tumultuous area of the world." This is also true. And yet the structure of the film is also very theatrical, and therefore in its economy, a bit artificial. The opening sequence, with its surprise twist, then the small scenes of Reem with husband and family, then left alone, have almost the containment of a stage. Most of all, Huda with her interrogator, in a big dark space: toward the end, the camera pulls back and that underground space looks so much like a stage I thought Abu-Assad was going to reveal this was the filming of a play. And this is a distraction in a film that is admirably claustrophobic throughout - cozy, only for that coziness to turn to horror.

Huda's Salon /صالون هدى debuted at Toronto in Sept. 2021, with IDMb listing eight other international festivals including Woodstock, Busan, Miami and Tallinn Black Nights (Estonia). US release: Mar. 4, 2022. Current Metacritic rating: 70%. Runtime: 91 mins.

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