At the beginning of the decade Tunisia ignited (quite literally) the Arab Spring. People pushed back against an oppressive regime. Now, at the end of the decade, has there been any real change in the North African country? Going by Ala Eddine Slim’s second film Tlamess, maybe not as much as we would think. Slim’s allegory of contemporary Tunisia is confounding, at times maddeningly so, but continues to fascinate for its entire runtime.
S (Abdullah Miniawy) is a soldier based in the desert. He is disturbed by the violence his unit uses to hunt down terrorists. When his mother dies he gets a week’s leave to arrange her funeral. He uses this week to burn his military bridges (and britches) and quietly desert. When the military police come for him, he manages to escape and flee into the woods in one of the film’s most striking scenes, a long tracking shot of a naked and wounded S in distorted cinematography and under an oppressive score.
F (Souhir Ben Amara) is the young wife of a successful businessman and has everything her heart could desire. After finding out she is pregnant she reflects on her life and comes to the conclusion that she is in a golden cage, pining away in a beautiful house with brand new furniture, but without true happiness. When she goes for a walk in the woods she encounters S. His hair, fingernails, and filthy clothing make clear that he has been here a while. F faints and is dragged by S into his lair, an abandoned underground bunker. Two alienated souls unhappy with their place in society find each other, first tentatively, later coming to an understanding and a common goal: the well-being of F’s baby.
Slim’s diptych is a largely experimental film. Most of the dialogue is exchanged telepathically, conveyed to the viewer by close-ups of eyes with the actual words as subtitles. There’s a giant snake, and also a black monolith that seems to be a portal of some sort. And let’s not forget S eventually breastfeeding the baby. The meaning of all of this is elusive and food for thought, which doesn’t make Tlamess a film for those who look for clarity, but an audience that is willing to go with its more fantastical elements can come under this strange film’s influence. At times the second act feels like an elongated version of that Denis Lavant / Eva Mendes scene in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, another film whose meaning is opaque and fodder for theorists. Tlamess is a film full of ideas and not all of them work or are followed through on (a clear allusion to boat migrants heading for Europe is touched upon but never returned to), but the thematic core of Slim’s vision is clear.
The film’s title means something akin to ‘a sorcerer’s spell’. But who is the sorcerer in this tale? Some might point at S and the way he seems to hold F under his spell, but Slim has larger targets in sight. The fact that both characters are dissatisfied with an oppressive situation they live in already hints at this being more about Tunisia at large. A long drone shot of nighttime Tunis as a marker in the film all but underlines this. The shot starts on a mosque, its minaret brightly lit in Islamic green. The camera moves away yet never loses sight of the green light piercing the dark and nearly empty streets. Oiseaux-Tempête’s deliberately intrusive and oppressive soundtrack swells ominously. Like a green all-seeing Eye of Sauron the minaret is there, always there, symbolizing religion’s strong hold on the city and the country. A bank office comes into view, marrying church and money, signaling the corruption that continues to plague Tunisia. Towards the end of the shot, it settles on a large fire. Is this Tunisia burning still? The scene is one of striking symbolism, and through its combination of iconography, cinematography, and music makes a powerful statement. Has oppression ever left Tunisia? Are S and F more symbols than characters, and the oppression they feel a metaphor for the country at large? Those hoping to find definitive answers might come away disappointed, but the film does end on a rather hopeful, if somewhat confusing note that evokes a young Moses in the bulrushes on the Nile. And we all know how that turned out for his people, so maybe there is hope for Tunisia.