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Review: Struggle Between Tradition & Modernity Is At Center Of Painterly Tunisian Drama 'Buried Secrets'

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by Tambay A. Obenson
April 3, 2014 2:13 PM
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From Tunisia comes Anonymes (Buried Secrets), from filmmaker Raja Amari.

The entire film takes place in a mansion, and centers on 3 women living in what they believe to be an empty house; they're squatters. Their lives are considerably disrupted when a young couple moves into the house - a couple that initially isn't at all aware that there are squatters present with them. So what we have here is a peculiar coexistence that develops within the walls of the house, because the women don't want to reveal themselves to their unwanted new house-mates, and they have no intention of leaving either. And so begins the dance as they try to continue living out their lives in this house, while also ensuring that the young couple doesn't become aware of their presence.

What was most interesting for me, and that I really gave little thought to, until I'd finished watching the film, is that I watched it without English subtitles (the screener I received didn't have that option, although it may have been a problem with my DVD player), and yet, I understood almost everything that happened that comprises the story.

It's a Tunisian drama, with characters speaking in Arabic, and the only subtitles available were French. Granted I can read a little bit of French, but I'm far from what you'd call competent in the language; however, I was able to follow the drama as it unfolded, because the filmmaker (Raja Amari) adhered to that old film school principle, one of the first things you learn, which is, show don't tell. And Amari does such a wonderful job of telling the film's story using the images primarily. 

It's so rare to watch such a quiet film (not only is the dialogue minimal, and there are no subtitles, but there's practically no soundtrack), and be able to understand, appreciate, and be moved by it all.

The painterly images, thanks in part to the location (a beautiful rustic mansion, with adornments that give it a striking visage), the production design, the costume design and cinematography, definitely help in holding your gaze; the frames are at times busy, but not-so much that you're distracted. Instead I found myself wanting to watch the film again just to take in all of the scenery, and live in it for a little while.

There's a definite nod to what I'd call the battle between traditional values versus modernity, in the form of the youngest of the 3 women, all over them seemingly strict adherers to the old ways of living, especially when it comes to the expected roles women are assigned by the society in which they exist, and how they carry themselves in a Muslim country. The youngest envies the life of the woman half of the young couple that moves in - a seemingly modern-day professional, who wears the kind of clothing that the 3 squatters consider "whorish" if you will (jeans, tee-shirts, her hair down, dresses that are above the knee, jewelry, etc - essentially what many others would consider everyday attire).

There's an attempt by the two older women to shield the youngest from that *other* reality, as they live these seemingly very secluded lives. But the young "rebel" clearly won't be denied that which she craves, a desire to grows and strengthens over time, which leads to a rather shocking ending that I didn't see coming at all, and I certainly won't reveal here.

It's a fascinating, quiet character study, and a window into these dueling ideologies - a rueful parable about fear and freedom that shares thematic similarities to other African films – as noted, the well-documented rift between African tradition and modernity, for example; the lure of the trappings of capitalism, dreams deferred, and more. And while curiosity doesn't exactly kill the cat in this instance, it still kills, and the end message the filmmaker seems to want the audience to take away is that modernity wins that battle.

Here's a preview:

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