Venice 2021 review: Amira (Mohamed Diab)

“A tightly written twisty drama in the vein of some of Asghar Farhadi’s better works, the film moves at a brisk pace yet leaves enough room to build three engaging characters who all lose because of one incident in the past.”

Palestinian women carrying a child by their incarcerated husbands are not an uncommon phenomenon. These children were not conceived the natural way though, as physical contact during visits is not permitted. But love, and seed, finds its way: sperm is smuggled out of prison through contacts and guards willing to make a bit of extra money, after which artificial insemination does the rest. Children are registered under the name of an uncle or some other relative. Since 2012, over 100 children have been born out of this practice. One such child is at the center of Amira, Mohamed Diab’s follow-up to his 2016 Cannes entry Eshtebak (Crash). At its core a family drama, Diab uses Amira to also highlight the strain put on Palestinians in the occupied territories as a result of the ongoing conflict with Israel.

Amira (a fierce debut performance by Tara Abboud) is the daughter of Warda (Saba Mubarak) and Nuwar (Ali Suliman). Her father is in prison for acts of terrorism and has never had physical contact with either Amira or her mother: Warda married Nuwar when he was already inside, as a wedding tape of her standing next to a large portrait of her groom proves. Amira was not born out of an act of love, but out of a test tube. Now, when Amira is a young adult, Nuwar tells them there is an opportunity to have another child: after ending a hunger strike by inmates, security measures have been somewhat relaxed and he might be able to smuggle sperm out. Amira beams at the idea of having a little brother or sister; Warda seems less enthusiastic but reluctantly agrees. Illegal phone sex and a bit of money slipped to an Israeli guard ensure that Nuwar’s ejaculate reaches outside the prison walls. A routine check, however, reveals that he is suffering from a hereditary disease which renders him sterile. Obviously this raises questions: if he can’t procreate, then who is Amira’s father? Accusations, denial, and suspicions threaten to tear the three principals and their extended family apart, until a shocking revelation throws Amira’s future into jeopardy.

With his previous two films, Cairo 678 and the aforementioned Eshtebak, Diab already proved that he is both a director and a writer to watch. Amira keeps that streak going. A tightly written twisty drama in the vein of some of Asghar Farhadi’s better works, the film moves at a brisk pace yet leaves enough room to build three engaging characters who all lose because of one incident in the past. A master of visual cues, Diab also comes up with inventive ways to heighten the drama. In an early scene he uses over-the-shoulder action and reaction shots during a prison visit to unfold the drama between Amira and Warda on one side of the glass and Nuwar on the other. Later in the film, when Amira pays her father another pivotal visit, he plays with the reflection in the glass to show the drama hitting both characters at the same time, absolutely key for this particular scene. The idea is so strikingly simple that one wonders why this visualization of dialogue is not employed more often. Details like that ensure constant engagement, as does the intricate plotting towards the key reveal. The denouement is probably not as strong as what comes before (though the final shot is very poignant), but it’s a minor hiccup in an otherwise strong and very accessible film that can easily have a good run at other festivals and in arthouse theaters.

But Diab is not alone. With Abboud, Mubarak, and Suliman he has brought together a triumvirate of outstanding performances that each individually has to run a gamut of emotions as the revelations and surprises of the narrative tumble forward like dominoes. Each of them imbues their character with the humanity needed to make the audience feel the pain and anguish written on their faces, which keeps investment in the story high. Backed by a solid supporting cast, their performances are what gives Amira that little extra that elevates it to a great film. To add to that, Diab cleverly works social commentary into his story, showing the difficulties many Palestinians have to navigate, not only at checkpoints where they must submit to dehumanizing Israeli scrutiny, but also on their own turf where terrorist organizations run the show. Amira’s uncle (Waleed Zuaiter), a top-ranking figure, is sweet to his niece, but also shown to be ruthless when he deems it necessary, like when Amira falsely accuses her teacher (Kais Nashif) of being the one who her mother cheated with. This constant reminder of having to be careful what you say or do for fear of the wrath of friend or foe adds extra depth to an already accomplished piece of writing by Diab.