Bab'Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul
Directed by Nacer Khemir. Starring Parviz Shahinkhou, Maryam Hamid, Hossein Panahi, Nessim Khaloul, Mohamed Graïaa, Maryam Mohaid, Golshifteh Farahani. (2006, PG-13, 96 min.)
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., July 11, 2008
Imagine if The Canterbury Tales had been set in the North African desert. Now imagine if it were little more than a random collection of ecstatic poetry readings, muezzins, sandstorms, and mystical dance parties. And finally, imagine if Chaucer had received funding from a consortium of Tunisian, French, Iranian, German, Hungarian, and British banks and business conglomerates. Do that and you’ve got a pretty good hold on Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul, which, if nothing else, proves that, even in our troubled times, East and West can still come together, when necessary, to produce something completely and utterly confusing. Because say what you will about Bab’Aziz’s homilies of peaceful religious acceptance and exotic musical numbers soaring across the sands of Tunisia, bathed in the purple glow of dusk, dark purple against brown – Oh glorious night, awake! – blown by ancient winds carrying the wailing sounds of the Arabian casbah over cascading dunes, stirring ecstatic souls … I was completely lost from the moment the movie began – wandering in that desert without a clue or a map, in the midst of some great spiritual crisis. Or – more to the point – a great expository crisis. For, like bearded mystics spinning and spinning their way toward enlightenment, scenes in Bab’Aziz seem to jump around at random, without rhyme or reason, leading me to suspect it was edited in the throes of religious ecstasy … or by a very small child. Perhaps it was the film’s 10-year-old co-star, Hamid, who plays Ishtar, a precocious girl guiding her blind, wizened grandfather (Shahinkhou) through the desert on their way to a gathering of dervishes, or Sufi ascetics. Along the way, they encounter other pilgrims, who share their stories of woe, lost love, and religious disenchantment. The problem is that none of those stories makes much sense – they stop and start arbitrarily, they interconnect and dovetail in ways passing understanding – and, more significantly, none of them is particularly engaging, especially that of the film’s titular prince: When they say he’s contemplating his own soul, they mean, literally, he’s contemplating his own soul; he just stares into a pond with a dreamy look in his eye … contemplating. So what does that leave you? A fantasia of drums and dance and disappearing palaces and gazelles and poetry about insane atoms and proverbs about ecstatic souls and sand … always sand, endless amounts of sand – with no string to get you back to the land of the logical, or even the entertaining. Some critics, I’m guessing, will praise Bab’Aziz for being “elliptical,” “meditative,” even “trance-inducing”: a “visual poem, a “mystery,” a “dream.” If they do, it will be the height of generosity and an act of deference to a movie that hides its indecipherability behind a cloak of visual and cultural exoticism.