One of the most complex emotions to portray cinematically is depression. As it is often described by those suffering from functioning depression as a feeling of "something missing" from their lives, it is tricky to place that black hole, that anhedonia, the intrinsic lack of interest in joy up on the big screen. Not only tricky but also unwatchable, from an entertainment point of view.
Yet in her latest film, which world premiered in Cannes in Un Certain Regard, Palestinian writer and director Maha Haj manages to portray the feeling of depression in all its nuances, in an active and very watchable, spellbinding way.
Mediterranean Fever is the story of Waleed (played perfectly by theater and film actor Amer Hlehel), an aspiring writer with depression, yet one who functions in his daily life, surrounded by his averagely dysfunctional family. Waleed's depression seems mostly due to the fact that he is a Palestinian living in Haifa, Israel, as there appears to be nothing seriously wrong in his life. Depression is just that, though, the inability to feel joy even if life around us is going according to plan, even if all the trappings of what should constitute a happy life, whatever that means, are present in our daily existence. Waleed has two normal children, a pretty wife and the ability to do what he pleases with his day. But we get the sense of that "frustration, imprisonment, and hopelessness because of the complexity of... being Palestinian," he feels, as Haj addresses it in her director's notes when talking about her previous work. We understand, deep inside, how it is all getting to him.
One day, he meets his new neighbor Jalal (the charismatic Ashraf Farah), a hustler of sorts, who does small illegal jobs here and there. There is a danger to Farah the actor, who distantly resembles Liev Schreiber in Ray Donovan, and that danger is what drives the film home. Without Jalal's very active intrusiveness and menacing quality, Waleed's depression would play like a sad song on an out of tune guitar -- tedious and dull. Instead of being the quiet masterpiece that Mediterranean Fever is, this would probably have turned into a film that would go unnoticed. By contrast, these two characters, so opposite in the way they look and act, so different in their approach to life, attract us like magnets to the story, we become like moths to a flame.
And in the process, Mediterranean Fever becomes one of those films that sticks close to the viewer's heart, and thoughts.
Jalal has a penchant for playing loud music, owns a gun and moves around with two large, menacing black dogs -- one of whom is named both Josephine and Khansa. Jalal is also the kind of Palestinian who doesn't mind referring to the roads in Haifa by their Zionist names, which were assigned after the Nakba. Where Waleed suffers from all the symptoms of the occupation, Jalal makes the best of the situation and what is that old saying "All's fair in love and war"? Yes, that could very well be Jalal's credo. The intellectual Waleed suffers from the weight of his thoughts, whereas Jalal is all about action -- and thinking about it comes later. Much, much later. This concept is also at the center of the film's surprise finale, which I definitely did not see coming!
The title of the film refers to a "disease [that] affects people living in the Mediterranean area, it is a disease connected to that place," as Haj explains in her notes. It is an autoimmune disease, which causes inflammation of the joints and stomach pains. Waleed's son keeps getting stomach aches before a particular class, and when his father takes him to the doctor, the film momentarily detours into a comedy of errors -- a commentary on the bureaucratic idiosyncrasies of the Israeli medical system. To complete the questionnaire to order the test the doctor asks for the patient's religion...
Haj is a very skillful filmmaker. She tells the story of these two male characters with humour and more than a hint of thriller-drama. We know from the very first scene, accompanied by the carillon music playing and what appears to be a dead body in the room, that this is going to be a story about dangerous liaisons. Haj also gives the audience the space to see the peril in Jalal as an attractive quality, a wonderful way to counteract the blahs of Waleed's character and make the film an active portrayal of depression, a typically very passive feeling. We enjoy their meetings, cake and coffee dates and adventures and keep hoping for a good ending, even if we know that it is just wishful thinking. Much as in the Palestinian condition and the world at large constant disregard in the face of the occupation, this is not a fairy tale. It may have moments of lightness but this is an intelligent portrayal of depression and the consequences of a disease. A very serious disease often caused by our cultural karma.
The film also benefits from the great cinematography of Antoine Héberlé, who also shot Mehdi Barsaoui's A Son, Hany Abu-Assad's Oscar nominated Paradise Now and Annemarie Jacir's Wajib. The soundtrack by musician Munder Odeh perfectly complements the story's twists and turns, which are not action-packed yet pack a punch, emotionally.
As if I need to actually spell it out, Mediterranean Fever is a must watch, one that will make you crave for Haj's next oeuvre.
Palestine, Germany, France, Cyprus, Qatar, 2022, 108 mins
Dir/Writer: Maha Haj
Production: Baher Agbariya (Majdal Films), Thanassis Karathanos, Martin Hampel (Pallas Film), Juliette Lepoutre, Pierre Menahem (Still Moving), Marios Piperides, Janine Teerling (Amp Filmworks). In Association With Metafora Production.
International sales: Luxbox
Cinematography: Antoine Héberlé
Editors: Véronique Lange
Music: Munder Odeh
With: Amer Hlehel, Ashraf Farah, Anat Hadid, Samir Elias, Cynthia Saleem, Shaden Kanboura