At a pivotal moment in Hany Abu-Assad's Rana's Wedding, a Westernized young Palestinian woman watches a funeral procession. We don't know the identity of the deceased. But we presume he is another Palestinian casualty in the endless violence between Arabs and Israelis. Whether he was an insurgent or an innocent bystander basically doesn't matter. The mourners are grim-faced. Most of the females are wearing head scarves. When the procession has completely passed beyond the spectator, two men at the end turn to stare at her. Their look is both an invitation and a remonstrance. She should be with them in their sadness and anger. She should quit what she's doing and take up a rank in their number. Throughout a harrowing day in this arresting and provocative film, as if on a road winding back and forth across one river at different locations, the young woman is faced with the same decision on several occasions and in several different ways. Her mundane experiences work as the story of a single individual but serve as a metaphor for an entire people.
Written by Liana Badr and Ihab Lamey, Rana's Wedding is the story of a 17-year-old Arab woman from an affluent family in east Jerusalem. Rana (Clara Khoury) is in love with a slightly older man named Khalil (Khalifa Natour) who is an established theater director. The film's unlikely plot, staged over the eight-hour period of a work day, proceeds from an ultimatum delivered by Rana's father. He's about to journey to Egypt (where, we presume, he must have business) and wants Rana to accompany him and go to school there. She can only remain in Jerusalem if she gets married, and she must choose a husband from a list of suitors that doesn't include Khalil, whom her father dislikes. Moreover, she must accomplish her wedding before her father's departure at 4 p.m. that very afternoon.
In response, Rana decides she will convince Khalil to marry her. They don't seem to have discussed this previously. But under Islamic law she can only marry against her father's wishes if she, her prospective husband and the wedding official all notify her father simultaneously and in person. So Rana's in for a busy day. She's got to travel to Ramallah where Khalil is staging a play, convince him to marry, locate a wedding official and shepherd everybody to her father's house before he leaves for the airport. She also needs to find a wedding dress and have her hair done.
This is the material of light romantic comedy that Hollywood has done countless times and to little lasting effect. What sets this film apart is its dramatic context. Assault rifles at the ready, Israeli soldiers loiter at every intersection. The streets between Jerusalem and Ramallah are a maze of security-check roadblocks. Rana's marriage quest turns into the trials of Odysseus as she's thwarted by obstacles and temptations at every turn. The landscape that she traverses deteriorates from the cobbled lanes of Old World charm to the rubble of urban warfare, a dusty, barren moonscape of destruction where Israeli bulldozers smash down houses. At one point she gets caught in a crossfire between a heckling crowd of Palestinian adolescents who are pelting Israeli soldiers with rocks and the soldiers who eventually fire upon them.
This film is not overtly political. In an Islamic world rife with religious fundamentalism and hatred of the West, Rana seems an entirely modern and secular person without a political agenda. Yet, the contemporary conditions of life for all Palestinians repeatedly expose her to indignity and danger. In an age of the suicide bomber, she can't reach for her cell phone without soldiers drawing down on her. That is how the film executes its subtle political agenda. It reminds us that the glaring images of seething Palestinian mobs blind us to the humanity of people in an occupied land who just want to live normal lives. Because we know Rana's mostly ludicrous objectives, it's all the scarier when in a frustrated moment she hurls a rock at an Israeli soldier herself or charges the guards at a roadblock like an enraged fullback.
On the metaphoric level, Rana's story is that of all the secular impulses inside the Islamic world, certainly inside the Palestinian world. Abu-Assad has cast his film with great precision. In her form-fitting clothes, Khoury's Rana transcends ethnicity. Early in the film we aren't even sure she's an Arab. Natour's Khalil is so light-haired and fair-skinned we at first think he's a European. And it's important that he's an artist. By choosing him, Rana celebrates those human endeavors which best flourish in an environment of peace. But as we recall those occasions in which peace seemed imminent only to slip away, we take note of Rana's indecisiveness, jealousy and simmering anger. She can't have a perfect world, the film seems to say, but she can have happiness, if she will only focus and choose it.
- Rana (Clara Khoury) tries to find happiness on her own terms in war-torn Jerusalem in Rana's Wedding, screening this week at Zeitgeist.