A RETROSPECT OF ONE OF THE FIRST FEMALE-DIRECTED ARAB FILMS: ‘THE SILENCES OF THE PALACE’, 1994
moufida tlali miilkiina

Amid its undulant rhythms of decadence, ‘Les Silences du Palais’ is, above all, a film of hope. With a narrative that dwells on themes of female seclusion and thwarted liberation, I feel the late Moufida Tlalti’s directorial debut remains relatively understated. Having discovered the oeuvre years ago, during research for my film studies dissertation, I find its desperate lyricism still has a way of moving. In narrating the coming of age of a young girl’s brutal journey towards emancipation, the film unfolds at a decisive historical moment, on the eve of the Tunisian national liberation. Narrated through a series of recurring flashbacks, it follows the return of a young woman, Alia (Ghalya Lacroix), to the palace where she and her mother lived and served. In juxtaposing memories of its former splendor, with the reality of its current dilapidation, the film remains evocative in transcending the tale of an individual journey to the portrayal of Alia as an embodiment of the nation’s struggle as a whole.

 

moufida tlali miilkiina

By means of poetic realism, Tlatli attunes her film to the political realities of her characters. A young Alia (Hend Sabri) is shown poised between a community of female servants and the leisured aristos whose desires they tend to. Her mother, Khadijah, is the palace concubine, and it seems Alia is being groomed to take her place. As the closeted rituals of the palace reside in a silence, Tlatli expertly echoes this with the larger political situation — by framing scenes against the din of constant emergency radio broadcasts. Her observant eye for detail captures the texture of life in the palace — the gardens, its fading opulence, and the ante-rooms. There are scenes of communal activity (dyeing, washing, singing lullabies) within which women share both their joys and their hardships. As a somewhat non-patriarchal family within the context of patriarchy, these moments render the film endearing.

Yet, such moments can’t escape the film’s leading temper, which lies at the monotony of the womens’ servitude. To me, the subtle interplay of sound and silence is particularly stirring in their voicing of female subjectivity. Khadija’s outburst in one sequence contests the minimized gestures and facial expressions of the female servants throughout the film. As the degree of their emotions is reduced to nothing but the grounded expressions in their eyes, her anguish as she yells, “everything about me disgusts me,” is poignant. This is only further intensified when Alia witnesses her mother’s assault. As a silent scream denotes her trauma, it is fascinating to note how her singing voice is later used to epitomize her own liberty. Within a melancholic fading note to the film’s complex overture (as Alia exchanges one form of servitude for another), Tlatli succeeds in delivering a tale of social relevance. As a film of struggle and emancipation among women in this society, The Silences of the Palace remains a delicately nuanced treasure of Arab cinema.

 

A RETROSPECT OF ONE OF THE FIRST FEMALE-DIRECTED ARAB FILMS: ‘THE SILENCES OF THE PALACE’, 1994
moufida tlali miilkiina

Amid its undulant rhythms of decadence, ‘Les Silences du Palais’ is, above all, a film of hope. With a narrative that dwells on themes of female seclusion and thwarted liberation, I feel the late Moufida Tlalti’s directorial debut remains relatively understated. Having discovered the oeuvre years ago, during research for my film studies dissertation, I find its desperate lyricism still has a way of moving. In narrating the coming of age of a young girl’s brutal journey towards emancipation, the film unfolds at a decisive historical moment, on the eve of the Tunisian national liberation. Narrated through a series of recurring flashbacks, it follows the return of a young woman, Alia (Ghalya Lacroix), to the palace where she and her mother lived and served. In juxtaposing memories of its former splendor, with the reality of its current dilapidation, the film remains evocative in transcending the tale of an individual journey to the portrayal of Alia as an embodiment of the nation’s struggle as a whole.

 

moufida tlali miilkiina

By means of poetic realism, Tlatli attunes her film to the political realities of her characters. A young Alia (Hend Sabri) is shown poised between a community of female servants and the leisured aristos whose desires they tend to. Her mother, Khadijah, is the palace concubine, and it seems Alia is being groomed to take her place. As the closeted rituals of the palace reside in a silence, Tlatli expertly echoes this with the larger political situation — by framing scenes against the din of constant emergency radio broadcasts. Her observant eye for detail captures the texture of life in the palace — the gardens, its fading opulence, and the ante-rooms. There are scenes of communal activity (dyeing, washing, singing lullabies) within which women share both their joys and their hardships. As a somewhat non-patriarchal family within the context of patriarchy, these moments render the film endearing.

Yet, such moments can’t escape the film’s leading temper, which lies at the monotony of the womens’ servitude. To me, the subtle interplay of sound and silence is particularly stirring in their voicing of female subjectivity. Khadija’s outburst in one sequence contests the minimized gestures and facial expressions of the female servants throughout the film. As the degree of their emotions is reduced to nothing but the grounded expressions in their eyes, her anguish as she yells, “everything about me disgusts me,” is poignant. This is only further intensified when Alia witnesses her mother’s assault. As a silent scream denotes her trauma, it is fascinating to note how her singing voice is later used to epitomize her own liberty. Within a melancholic fading note to the film’s complex overture (as Alia exchanges one form of servitude for another), Tlatli succeeds in delivering a tale of social relevance. As a film of struggle and emancipation among women in this society, The Silences of the Palace remains a delicately nuanced treasure of Arab cinema.

 

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