The Wedding Song [2008] is a deeply felt film of young women’s friendship under the extreme stress of wartime as the Nazis come to Tunis in November of 1942.  The Allies have just  landed in Morocco and Algeria.  The Germans, pushing aside their French Vichy partners, want to use the easy geographic defense of Tunis to mount a counter offensive — and add to the extermination of ‘European’ Jewry.’  Nour [Olympe Borval] is about 16, Muslim and in love with a young man who can’t find a job.  Myriam [Lizzie Brocheré] is the same age, Jewish, not in love with the wealthy man her mother insists she must marry, and is best friends with Nour — living in near poverty in the same building around the common courtyard.

The two share secrets and risks as their blooming sexuality begins to have its way.  Myriam takes Nour’s place in bed so her friend can go visit her boyfriend, Khaled [Najib Oudghiri,] clandestinely.  Without a job, her father will not let the marriage happen, but desire, even in the Muslim young, is strong. Nour celebrates her friend’s wedding preparations even though Myriam is resistant to the charms or wealth of Raul [Simon Abkarian — who may be familiar to you from Persepolis or Army of Crime, the “real” Inglorious Bastards.]

Nazi boots begin to fall on the narrow stone streets, reverberating up the stone walls and into the windows.  Allied bombs fall, sometimes terrifyingly close, and along with Nazi propaganda leaflets add to anti-Jewish sentiment among the Muslims.  Although Myriam and her mother live exactly like their Muslim neighbors, and speak Arabic as well as French, the Jews are regarded as being set apart — from ancient prejudices as well as from the increased  Francophile leanings among Tunisian Jews after the imposition of the French Protectorate in 1881, which seemed to guarantee them wider rights than under the Ottoman Arabs.  The incipient nationalism of many Tunisians, chaffing under the French, was fed by Nazi propaganda claiming to be fighting on the same side as the Muslims against the Jewish, English and American threats. ‘They promise us our freedom if we help them.’

Khaled finally finds work with the Nazis and we see his face with a squad of them as a terrified Myriam hides beneath her mother’s bed who is beaten, denying anyone else is there.  Even during torrid foreplay, he fills Nour with anti-Semitic ideas, taken from the Nazis and selected passages of the Koran, and forbids her to see her best friend. He strips a new brassiere from her, a gift from Myriam, telling her she does not have to “dress like a whore” to be his wife.

There are wonderful scenes of the two girls faces, both lovely, confiding secrets and distress as the war begins to separate them into “others.”  Dark shadows of the girls coming and going shot against pale blue and green washes of the walls are masterfully done.  The camerawork is mercifully free of the intense close-ups at every moment so popular these days.  Medium shots let us take in the context of their lives;  closeups are reserved for those moments of intimacy to which they are appropriate.

Tender and even erotic scenes are filmed between the Muslim young couple, revealing more, certainly, than one would expect in a film with Islam as a major strand in the story. In once tense moment Myriam looks on, wide-eyed, trying to figure out is happening, hoping to be able to convince her finance that she is not a virgin – and so avoid the looming wedding.

Some rather shocking scenes — even for worldly modern audiences– also take place as Myriam is prepared for her wedding night, “Asian style” (not European style) as her Jewish-Tunisian husband requests of her mother.  This involves a full body waxing, in some detail, as well as the final results — in close up.  Even if you chose to close your eyes as the final tufts of pubic hair are wrenched from her by, I suppose, a specialist in the procedure — an older, tough looking woman– the cultural varieties of human experience will not leave you.

Perhaps as shocking, though less graphically, will be the scenes of the women of Nour’s family waiting outside the first-night marriage room for proof of her virginity. When the husband strolls out of the bedroom door, and hands over the blood-stained [false] proof, they erupt in ululating celebration.  Talk about cultural divides!

In the final scenes, as Allied bombs rain on the city and the Nazis flee  — March 1943– [though not before sending some 5,000 Jewish men to forced labor camps, under the direction of  SS-Obersturmbannführer Walter Rauf, who pioneered the construction and distribution of gas vans,] there is a nice scene of the two girls reunited in friendship, in a bomb-shelter, heads together, praying in Hebrew and Arabic.

Though the film is tagged as French, and much French is spoken,  the cast and crew seem to be strongly Tunisian, at least by name. My own reason for watching was to learn more about the Arab world, particularly during a time about which we know both a lot a and a little.  The shooting seems to be have been in Tunis, though the credits at IMDB don’t identify locations. The interiors and costuming, especially is an authentic hamam, [how on earth did they get permission to film in there?] are very convincing.

Strongly recommended, both for WW II history, and the testimony to friendship across culture and religion.  Fine cinematography, and a soundtrack contributed at least in part by German popular singer, Nina Hagen.

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