Writer and Director: Ala Eddine Slim
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Tlamess is the oddest film at this year’s BFI London Film Festival. Coming from Tunisia, Tlamess is almost two films, as each hour of its running time is completely different. The second act is almost too hard to swallow.
The first hour of this stunningly shot film is almost conventional as a soldier is given a week’s compassionate leave after the death of a female relative, presumably his mother. He goes home, but then refuses to go back to the army, and when the military police come to find him, he escapes into the city. And suddenly the short scenes, some only lasting a second or two, are exchanged for long panning shots of the city, all to exquisite music by Oiseaux-Tempête, pulsing electric guitars and drums. These moments are heart-stoppingly beautiful.
In these early scenes director Ala Eddine Silm chooses to place square and oblong shapes directly in the middle of the frame. A square shower-block wall hides a suicide, an x-ray’s rectangle hangs in front of the soldier’s face and, briefly, a mysterious black wedge, like a cenotaph, presides in the desert. This attention to detail is unsettling, but these forms return in the film’s second half.
Tlamess means enchantment in Tunisian and the action moves to a forest, which is enchanted in many ways. For a start, there is no need for language here. Silm’s characters exist in a world that comes before language, in Lacanian terms, a world beyond the symbolic. However, the non-verbal communication between the characters is still presented to the audience in the form of subtitles, rather undoing the whole idea. Perhaps it would have been better to do away with the subtitles altogether.
But then again without the subtitles, the audience would be even more confused when the narrative starts to mirror the Adam and Eve story, present in both the Bible and the Quran even though Eden in Sim’s film is a drowned world. As the soldier, Abdullah Miniawy is astonishing, and the long shot where he runs naked through the edges of the city, must be one of the best scenes in any of the films at the festival this year.
As ‘Eve’, Souhir Ben Amara is excellent, too, looking like Juliette Bincohe in some places. She does well with a difficult role in which she rejects a life of empty materialism. Together with Miniawy, they convince as the occupants of this strange world, even though they never say a word to each other.
Some may think this film is too obscure, if not a little bit crazy, while others will think Tlamess is thrilling and groundbreaking. However, without a doubt, this is an electrifying and unforgettable second feature from Slim, which will surely garner a cult following. Sign up here if you’re brave enough.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October