October 10, 2019
In Between – Israel, 2016
There are three kinds of directorial debuts. There’s the kind that makes us marvel at the level of talent unfolding before our eyes, there’s the type that makes us think the director needs to find a new profession, and there’s the kind from which we see potential amid their film’s many flaws. In Between is an example of the latter. Its creator, writer-director Maysaloun Hamoud, obviously had the best of intentions, and there’s no doubt that the film goes where many other films from Israel and the Middle East avoid. It simply has too much going on to do any of its storylines justice.
The film is about three young Palestinian women living in Tel Aviv, which is shown to be the center of independence and freedom to some and the axis of sin to others, in particular, parents. In truth, it’s a bit of both, adding a double meaning to the film’s title. First, there’s Leila (Mouna Hawa), a hard-partying lawyer. She lives with Salma (Sana Jammelieh), a restaurant employee who is quieter and a bit rougher around the edges. The trio is rounded out by Nour (Shaden Kanboura), a relative of Leila’s who is much more traditional than her hosts, yet not so traditional that she would sacrifice her education and economic status for her ultra-conservative fiancé.
Early on, each character’s conflict becomes fairly clear. Leila falls in love with a man whose lifestyle choices are similar to hers, yet we wonder how accepting he truly is. Salma is mostly reticent, yet has a quick temper, indicating there is something eating at her from within, and pretty soon, a bartender recognizes it and makes a move. Nour, for her part, is juggling her own desires with her fiancé’s attempts to control her.
Each of these storylines would probably have made for an interesting film on its one. However, thrown together, it is impossible to do any of them justice. As a result, Hamoud takes unfortunate short cuts. Leila’s courtship is reduced to just a few scenes of her and her new love taking drugs and getting romantic before we see Leila declaring how great it feels to be in love again. It is implied that Salma has been alone for quite a while, yet when she finally is pursued by someone, it takes only two scenes for her to be declaring love for her pursuer, and then it has her throw caution to the wind in a way that is inconsistent with someone who knows the danger of doing so. Only Nour’s relationship is firmly established. However, that is simply because she is already engaged when we first meet her. In other words, we can believe that the honeymoon phase is over and that doubts have started creeping in.
The film’s strength is its portrayal of sisterhood. Sure, there are conflicts between the three roomies – the bathroom is a constant source of tension – but it is remarkable just how accepting the three of them are. There are no conversations about how Nour could go along with what must have been an arranged marriage, no loud condemnations of what Nour likely feels is Leila and Salma’s “unladylike” demeanor. Instead, there’s mostly acceptance and camaraderie. In one powerful moment, the three of them sit together after tragedy has struck and provide the only comfort they can. They’re simply there, for, in truth, words are truly inadequate at times. I could have watched an entire film of them just talking to each other about life and their views on the world.
That is not the film we have, and Hamoud’s insistence of focusing so intensely on their pursuit of love diminishes the film’s strengths. For example, Salma’s storyline is hardly developed, and Nour’s fiancé comes across as more of a villain of convenience that a fully developed character. As for Leila, she does something late in the film that I did not buy, as it is not consistent with someone in her profession or with her personality. Sure, it’s justice, but it’s the kind of justice that only exists in movies, kind of like all of those scenes in which a teenager serenades the girl he likes from outside her window or someone who isn’t a professionally-trained agent goes undercover to get evidence of inappropriate behavior. It either works, or it doesn’t, and here, I feel it doesn’t.
In the end, the film is a mixed bag. The cast is generally strong. Leila and Nour are fascinating characters, and I rather enjoyed their scenes together. I thought Salma was underwritten and could have used either more screen time or a lot of editing. However, there is an additional explanation for why the film does not work for me, and that is that I’ve seen too many movies for In Between to feel truly novel. I’ve seen love stories involving drug users, closeted individuals like Salma, and women arranged to marry men who turn out not to be the nicest of people. In Between didn’t show me a situation I hadn’t seen before; it just added a new location to those areas I already knew had these conflicts. Perhaps, like Deepa Mehta’s Fire, In Between will resonate more with filmgoers in its home country. For me, I’m afraid it was only a partly successful case of been there, done that. (on DVD)
2 and a half stars
*In Between is in Arabic with English subtitles.