THE SILENCES OF THE PALACE (1994)

  • Director: Moufida Tlatli
  • Writer: Moufida Tlatli
  • Starring: Amel Hedhili, Hend Sabri, Najia Ouerghi, Sami Bouajila, Kamel Fazaa, Fatima Ben Saidane, and Kamal Twatti
  • Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#88), Won awards at Toronto, Cannes, Carthage, and Istanbul Film Festivals
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on YouTube

The Silences of the Palace was, as far as we know, the first ever feature film from the Arab World to be directed by a woman. Unfortunately, it is also, of the movies we’ve covered so far, the hardest to actually watch, in the literal sense. It is not available officially on any streaming service, even to rent. Amazon lists it as only available on VHS, for an insane $70 dollars, though it is currently listed as out of stock. Fortunately, someone somewhere uploaded the movie unofficially to YouTube at some point, and no one has asked for the film to be taken down it seems. I would have been more than happy to pay to watch the film, but nobody gave me that option.

Moufida Tlatli was born in Tunisia, went to film school in France, then returned to her home country and worked as a film editor in the local movie industry for a couple of decades. After her mother became severely ill, she realized how little she actually knew about her mother’s life, and set out to make a movie showing the struggles of women in mid-century Tunisia as the country was undergoing an anti-colonial struggle. I’ll be honest, the movie took a long time to draw me in. At first I wasn’t really sure what was actually happening, or what the relationships were between the various characters. The specifics of those relationships are important, because this is the story of people whose lives are ordered completely around differences of both gender and class.

The main character, Alia (Hend Sabri), is a young, beautiful wedding singer in 1950s Tunisia, who is being pressured by her boyfriend (Sami Bouajilia) to have what is implied is just the latest in a series of abortions. Then she hears that a former prince, Sid’Ali (Kamel Fazaa) has died, and returns for the first time in many years to the palace where she grew up. She walks around a quiet, ruined palace, remembering in a series of flashbacks her childhood there. No one who lives there is allowed to leave, or to see anyone from outside. The Prince and his family exploit their servants in many ways, including sexually. In one early scene, the Prince casually says to Alia’s servant mother, Khedija (Amel Hedhili) that he’d like her to bring him some tea in his bedroom. We hear the other servants comment that they won’t see her for the rest of the night.

Over the course of the story, young Alia gradually realizes the extent of her mother’s unhappiness and exploitation, while Khedija desperately does everything she can to keep her daughter, who is slowly becoming a beautiful woman, from suffering the same fate. At first Alia is rebellious, wanting only to become a musician and singer, and chafing at her mother’s plaintive advice: “If a man touches you, run away.” But over the course of the movie she realizes just how trapped she is. There are multiple shots of her looking out through the metal bars of a doorway, at one point even commenting that she is in prison. Even a gilded cage is still a cage. 

The Silences of the Palace takes place in a world full of boisterous shouting and music, where all that anyone has to entertain themselves is a radio that mostly plays music, interspersed occasionally with news updates about the Tunisian struggle for independence. The women break out en masse into ear-splitting celebratory ululations repeatedly, with little provocation. The “silences” referred to in the title, then, are things left unsaid, the way that everyone keeps up a brave face no matter what happens to them or their fellow women in the palace. It is the silence of a woman who desperately wants to say “no,” but can’t. 

At first, Tlatli’s style feels very understated. She tends to shoot full scenes in medium-shot, without cutting in for close-ups or moving the camera. It is the most basic style of movie. But as Alia grows up and gains more emotional understanding of her situation, so, it seems, does the camera. In one of the most memorable scenes, Khedija breaks down in front of the other women in the kitchen after being raped by one of the men in the palace, screaming that “everything disgusts me! I hate my body!” None of the other women says anything as the camera pans over their faces, which are all lost in thought and concern, and their hands in close-up, which are all continuing to go through the motions of rinsing laundry or kneading bread. And the movie ends on a long shot of just the adult Alia, accompanied by a voiceover in which she decides to keep her baby, and name it Khedija if it’s a girl.

The Silences of the Palace is a period piece set in a time and place not likely very familiar to American viewers, Tunisia just after World War II. The country had been a French protectorate ruled by puppet monarchs since the 1880s, but was in the throes of a Revolution. As our characters are trapped in the palace, we only hear about this, never see it. Tunisia is growing up, it seems the message goes, the same way that Alia is. And perhaps there is a metaphor here comparing the exploitation of women in a man’s world with the exploitation of a small colony by a European power. But this is much more than an allegory, it is a movie that wants us to deeply empathize with characters in a situation very unlike, and yet maybe not some unlike in some ways, our own. 

And no matter how different that situation, these are recognizably people, just like us. The biggest feel-good moment of the movie is when Alia is gifted an oud (a kind of traditional lute) by her mother, and in that moment we see a girl not so different from any number of American girls with a dream. And you find that traditional Tunisian singing, which sounds somewhat alien and mournful to American ears, is not so different from the sorts of songs girls today would bop along to while listening to the radio when you have the lyrics subtitled for you. One song is translated, “It’s Saturday night/There is a party happening/There are lots of girls there.” It’s pretty much like if you ran Katy Perry through Google Translate. 

One of my goals here is to provide as many windows into as many different perspectives as possible, but unfortunately there remain places in the world where it is not easy for everyone’s voice to be heard. The Silences of the Palace received international acclaim, receiving the “Camera d’Or” for directing at Cannes and also receiving the Sutherland Trophy, annually awarded to a foreign film by the British Film Institute. Yet Tlatli only managed to finance two more movies in the couple of decades since. She does remain revered in her native Tunisia, however, and starting in 2011 she actually served for several years as Minister of Culture in the small Mediterranean nation.

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