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Originally published Friday, March 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

A seamless, sandy journey through the desert in Bab'Aziz

The primal tranquillity of shifting sands across the Iranian and Tunisian desert is no mere backdrop to this hypnotic fable of spiritual...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"Bab'Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul," with Parviz Shahinkhou, Maryam Hamid. Directed by Nacer Khemir, from a screenplay by Khemir and Tonino Guerra. 96 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. In Arabic and Farsi with English subtitles. Varsity. A Q&A will be held tonight and Saturday (www.landmarktheatres.com).

The primal tranquillity of shifting sands across the Iranian and Tunisian desert is no mere backdrop to this hypnotic fable of spiritual wisdom. The silken dunes that cocoon, propel or transform the humans and animals crossing their rippled lines are elemental characters with as much significance as the mystical parable they all inhabit.

Using a mostly seamless series of narrative techniques, the film spins a string of interconnected stories based on Sufi mysticism. It is anchored by the journey of an old blind man named Bab'Aziz (Parviz Shahinkhou) and his granddaughter Ihstar (Maryam Hamid) as they wander in search of a gathering of dervishes who celebrate together in the desert every 30 years.

Bab'Aziz entertains and calms his anxious charge by telling her the legend of a young prince who becomes fanatically obsessed by the gaze of his own reflection from a pool of water. Trekking deeper into the labyrinthine wilderness, they meet a succession of others who share their own stories of philosophical pain or yearning. One man believes he has discovered paradise at the bottom of a deep well; one is on a quest to find a love he has driven away; another courts madness by seeking aimless revenge. A common thread of introspection is eloquently woven amid the truth of universal thought and the hypnotic spell of landscapes that are as ancient as they are transient.

Tunisian director Nacer Khemir's palette also includes the mesmeric texture of half-buried mosques, harsh rock formations and occasional flashes of brilliantly colored textiles leaping out of the monochromatic horizon. So timeless is the pace and setting that it's a little alarming when reminders of modern culture — such as a motor scooter, a baseball cap or an airplane — intrude into view.

An exotic musical score that climaxes with the epic gathering of dervishes in a parched, crumbling city enhances the visual poetry. The music also gives balance to a dramatic structure that might otherwise have seemed overly amorphous. The atmosphere is so thick with mystical theory that languor sometimes threatens to win out over insight. Be sure to come well rested; this desert is no place for a nap.

Ted Fry: tedfry@hotmail.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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