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Inbred prejudices meet unsuspected sympathies in Moroccan-born pied noir director Faucon's resonant, concentrated film. Selima (Sabrina Ben Abdallah) is an independent young nurse of Moroccan Arab origin in the south of France who gets a job doing care for a Moroccan-born Jewish woman, Esther (Ariane Jacquot), who's newly wheelchair-bound. Esther's complaints and abuse lead her housekeeper to quit, and Selima brings in her devoutly Muslim mom Halima (Zohra Mouffok) to clean and do kosher cooking. Problems ensue, but the "two ladies," both of considerable dignity, elegance and girth, find their commonality of generation, religiosity, and national origin overrides politics and prejudice. Halima and Esther hit it off and have many a giggle together. There's no doubt an element of wishful thinking in this story, which is simple in its telling but complex in its overtones; but this is trumped by the sheer authenticity of the people and the settings.
While the 'Variety' reviewer likens this to an "after-school special," major French publications like 'Les Inrockuptibles,' 'Cahiers du Cinema,' and 'L'Humanité' gave it a very high rating. Why this disparity? Perhaps because Americans don't see the need to acknowledge "little" things like Israel's devastating bombing assault on Lebanon two years ago (a event pointedly noted here), and aren't committed to living with a large Muslim population?
Push comes to shove when Esther's doctor son, who usually looks after her, must leave town for a month for training and she agrees to spend the time in Halima's house. At first she kvetches, but before long she and Halima are having more fun together than ever. But mean gossipers in the neighborhood say Halima's earnings from the Jewish lady are tainted money and her plan to use them to make the Haj is "haraam," unlawful. She asks the imam after a mosque service (and this is a rare close-up of Muslim worship) and he gives the correct reply: the Koran says muslims and Jews are both "ahl ul-kitaab," People of the Book, they have had lawful dealings with each other since the Prophet's time, and if her employer has never objected to her religion or spoken ill of it, "you have been misled." There is nothing wrong in working for her, her money is "halaal," licit, for the pilgrimage. "Go in peace."
When Esther's son comes back early, she refuses to go home and insists on staying to see off Halima on her departure for Mecca. Again, authenticity prevails as the celebration of the Haj is shown.
Obviously Faucon, a Moroccan-born non-Arab like the character of Esther, knows whereof he speaks when it comes to Maghreban mulitculturalism, an issue pretty well known to French liberal intellectuals but remote from most Americans' ken. The freshness, vividness, and excellent production values make this a winner. We need more stuff like this. Serge Kaganski of 'Les Inrockuptibles' wrote: "A film that's simple and complex, ambitious and modest; that avoids no zone of conflict but explores them with calm, tact, and courage. From its paradoxes comes its beauty." Two Ladies, whose French title is 'Dans la vie' (In the Life) opened in Paris March 12, 2008, and was shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, 2008.
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