Film Highlight: Bab'Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul
Even though one of the earliest appeals of cinema was the window it opened onto other cultures and continents, films that engage that interest now routinely get dismissed as "ethnographic" or as prurient exoticism. It's a charge that the Tunisia-born, Paris-educated poet-sculptor-filmmaker Nacer Khemir has faced before—and will probably face again with this mystical, meandering, marvelously photographed ode to his Sufi faith and the power of storytelling, intended in part as a corrective to the West's impression of fanatical Islam. Embarking toward a legendary gathering of dervishes (humble Sufi wanderers who devote their lives to love and beauty) that happens every 30 years, the blind, aging Bab'Aziz (Parviz Shahinkhou) entices his young granddaughter, Ishtar (Maryam Hamid), to join him by spinning the tale of a prince who lost his kingdom but found his soul in the depths of a reflecting pool. As they walk, Khemir (in collaboration with Antonioni's longtime screenwriter Tonino Guerra) meshes their stories with those of other travelers. But, despite the unhurried pace, the stories unfold without compelling details, and the interweaving is more pedestrian than artful. Instead, the pleasure of Khemir's picaresque lies in the music, dance, and locations found along the journey—and to brush these wonders off as exotic collector's bait would be more than a little patronizing.
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