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The lot of human life

Mussolini's Sister
Regissør: Juna Suleiman
(Palestina, Israel)

WOMEN'S LIFE / Black humor illuminates this close-up portrait of a sarcastic, elderly Palestinian woman's life, relationships, desires and bitterness.


It is something The Odd Couple-just by Juna Suleiman's cynically funny docufiction portrait of the old sarcastic Palestinian woman Haim's life and love (or rather hate) relationship in Mussolini's Sister. And – before you ask – the title is really eye-catching. It is explained, far out in this remarkable snapshot of the life of an eighty-year-old woman in Nazareth, when we hear that she actually had a brother named Mussolini… Oh, and one more brother, named Hitler, who died as a child. Cross my Heart. Or maybe not. It is never entirely clear what the actual facts are and where the facts slip into fiction in what is at times a cheerful examination of the lot of man.

Intimately dark

We are used to seeing films about Israel, Palestine and the Middle East that focus on politics, wars, fury, violence and death. Suleiman's film touches on all of these issues, but only as seemingly random glimpses seen on the television screen (a political murder in which blood drips from a shelf; Syrian cities bombarded with rags; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging voters to vote Likud to weigh up for the "large number of Arab voters"). Instead, her subject is far more intimate and is probably uncomfortably close to many viewers: the almost imperceptible, daily negativity, lethargy, and bitter ego-driven projections that create so much anger and pain among people, including ourselves.

Basically, it is not big to like Haim, which we first see in its well-kept and spacious apartment in Nazareth. She lies on the bed and reads the complaint column in a newspaper, a column full of despair over futile toil with love. She alternates between different radio channels; The Voice of Israel is phased out as she mumbles "yes then, go to hell", over to the next one; an Arabic-language channel, which states that «our seconds disappear in the attempt to embrace the past… thank you for listening».

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Gradually, we get to know the most important people around Haim: first her beautiful hairdresser, then her 55-year-old son, whom she treats as if he were still a child; cooking for him and scolding him for being fat, or warning him not to mix with "loose women".

The mother and son are glued together, reminiscent of mutual contempt, with constant nagging about insignificant things: "When do you want to pity you and the grinder meat a little finer?" Asks the son, adding: "You, mother, are inept – you has been doing the same thing for 80 years. ”It all seems a bit gloomy, until the humor begins to creep in between Haim's prejudiced and bitter remarks. “This cereal is super; it's like medicine. I eat it – and go straight to the toilet. "

We also meet the first in a long line of private domestic workers – young women hired to care for her and clean the house. Most of them quickly fall into disdain with Haim; she is suspicious of nature and gives them fired on the basis of various wrongdoings, imagined or not.

Unlived life

The claustrophobia in a movie where all footage has been made – so far – in Haim's apartment, is starting to grow. But then Suleiman gives us a glimpse of a larger life: the kitsch of the Russian Communist Party – a transparent plastic block adorned with a black bust by Lenin and the slogan in Cyrillic letters: The Party – wisdom, honor and awareness of our time. This is a little confusing, until we see Haim flipping through an old photo album and it becomes clear that her husband was a leading Palestinian communist.

“I remember everything from my life; what I've been through is one
disaster. »Haim

Gradually we begin to understand where her bitterness comes from. Maybe it's the unlived life – the unexplored passion we see burning in the eyes of a beautiful young woman in her twenties who is glimpsed in a photograph. This is Haim in her prime. 'I got married and hell broke loose. I kept quiet time and time again… What could I do? I remember everything from my life; what I have been through is a disaster. "

There is no direct reference to the Palestinians' central trauma – mass displacement and killing of the Palestinian population, followed by the occupation of their land as the State of Israel declared independence in 1948. This is called al-Nakba ("The disaster") in Arabic. Haim was only 17 years old at that time.

Gradually, a feeling of pity – even love – towards this strange and bitter old woman begins to emerge, amid the close-up of her aging feet with twisted toes and corns, her thorough waxing of her facial hair and frequent visits to the hairdresser to attend to her womanhood.

Underlying bitterness

Haim is in and out of hospitals, and is clearly getting weaker and more lethargic. Finally – after some pictures of an empty apartment that makes us think she might be dead – the film opens up and shows us her neighborhood: an attractive hillside that is part of the middle class Nazareth.

An old family video from the 1970s or '80s is used as a transition to dig deeper into Haim's past in a prosperous family, where her brother held lavish parties and married a glamorous Spanish woman. Mussolini called himself Maurice when he traveled abroad. Hitler had been dead for a long time. (I suppose these names are real and not one of the fictionalized elements.) As she disappears into memories of that time, Haim, although the bitterness is always present, softens, sighing just beneath the surface: life. "

Eventually, we begin to understand where the main character's
bitterness comes from.

She hires a new maid – a Nepali woman recommended by her trusted friend, the hairdresser. It seems that this maid is God-sent; Suddenly, Haim speeds around the city, gaining a few pounds, looking younger and happier. But it does not last, and the new maid gets fired because she is "selfish, an intrigemaker and lazy".

The film makes a circular motion and ends where it started – Haim lying on the bed, listening to the radio. In search of cure for her loneliness and pain, she calls in an astrology program. "You are crayfish with the moon in the twins – you say what you have in your heart. You are a romantic, but you have problems, ”says the host. "You are materialistic and take up a lot of space, and your thoughtless behavior leads to confrontations."

Fade to black, run caption… and this strangely engaging film about Mussolini's sister ends.

Translated by Vibeke Harper

Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Holdsworth is a writer, journalist and filmmaker.

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