Arab Blues

***

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Arab Blues
"The story develops episodically, with each client given their bit of patter, some of which work better than others." | Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival/Carole Bethuel

Culture-clash comedy, a dose of absurdity and some gentle social commentary on the situation in post-revolution Tunisia come together to periodically amusing but haphazard effect in this feature debut from Manele Labidi, co-written by Maud Ameline.

Selma (Golshifteh Farahani, in a rare but welcome lighter role) has recently returned to Tunis after living in France since the age of 10. Her plan to provide psychoanalysis to the locals is met with some scepticism by her aunt and uncle (Ramla Ayari and Moncef Ajengui) and just about everybody else she speaks to - even her young cousin Olfa (Aïcha Ben Miled) is less than pleased to see her, since she was planning to "escape" to France.

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But, in the sort of well-trodden development that hampers the film, once she opens up shop she is soon being visited by virtually everyone in the district, right down to the local Imam (Jamel Sassi).

Selma also falls foul of local copper Naim (Majd Mastoura) - in a breathalysing meet-cute, that provides one of the best laughs, as it blends the political with the absurd. In between trying to chat her up, he takes her to task over her lack of a proper certificate to practise, a situation that leads to her to grapple with bureaucracy in her off-hours.

The story develops episodically, with each client given their bit of patter, some of which works better than others. A plotline about a baker who may be trans feels particularly dated and a scene in which he is caught in a women's hammam could have been plucked from a Carry On film. There's generally not too much soul-searching here, with the emotional issues of each client tucked away with care and attention lest anyone should take offence Labidi and Ameline lean into stereotypes, though they mostly get away with this by displaying a deep affection for their characters.

Farahani is the key selling point, helping to beef up Selma's emotions beyond the limited reach of the script, with Miled also putting in an enjoyable turn as Selma's rebellious niece, who uses the appearance of conforming to mask her non-conformity. The humour and mood are both lifted by Flemming Nordkrog's upbeat, trumpet-driven score.

Reviewed on: 19 Mar 2020
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Arab Blues packshot
A Parisian psychoanalyst tries to set up a practice in a post-Arab Spring Tunis.

Festivals:

London 2019

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