Middle Eastern Film Festival: The Silences of the Palace
May 1, 2013 - 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM
Moufida Tlatli’s masterpiece Silences of the Palace (Samt al-Qusur) is a Tunisian film released in 1994. Seventeen years after its release, Silences remains lamentably little known, even among those who have a better than passing familiarity with Arab film. Silences is a challenging film. By “challenging,” I mean that Silences is an unflinching and ultimately heart-rending account of violence of various sorts—the violence of patriarchy, the violence of colonialism, the violence of poverty.
The genius of the film lies in the meticulous crafting of the plot, which establishes a parallel between the “coming of age” of Alia, struggling with various layers of her identity, and the rise of an independent Tunisia. Western reviews of the film on the festival circuit tended to focus upon the dynamics of sexual oppression with which Alia finds herself confronted, as she emerges from puberty into womanhood. Her mother, subject to the harassment and abuse of the men “upstairs,” is reluctant to speak with Alia of her father. One comes to grasp in the course of the film that Alia’s father in fact resides upstairs, while her mother remains relegated to the servant’s quarters downstairs, leaving Alia in a quandary as to where she belongs—with her friend Sara, one of the “legitimate” children of the notable family, or with the rest of the servants below? When Alia happens upon the brutal sexual assault of her mother by one of the notables, she is quite literally stunned into silence, dumbfounded by the violence that the power imbalance between upstairs and downstairs, and between men and women, occasions.
However, one swiftly discovers that Silences is no simplistic allegory of the condition of women in pre-independence Tunisia. What makes the film particularly relevant in the context of the Arab uprisings and Tunisia’s central role therein, is the critique of the post-independence regimes conveyed most powerfully in the film’s final lines. In Alia’s flashbacks, one is introduced to Lotfi, an activist for the nationalist cause, who is hired by the notables as a schoolteacher. It is Lotfi who, in a moment of great allegorical weight, teaches Alia to write her name. But Lotfi ends up failing Alia much as her father had: the schoolteacher had promised the young woman freedom from her bondage in the palace and a career as a great singer. At the end of the film, as she wanders in the palace courtyard, the Alia of post-independence Tunisia casts her mind back to her long-dead mother, and laments her continued bondage. Silences of the Palace is a film which speaks not only to the struggles of the past but to the struggle for the future as well.