Combat can’t beat Love
Belfast and Gaza Mon Amour
By Marc Glassman
Kenneth Branagh, director and script
Starring: Jude Hill (Buddy), Caitriona Balfe (Ma), Jamie Dornan (Pa), Judi Dench (Granny), Ciaran Hinds (Pop, his grandfather), Colin Morgan (Billy Clanton), Lara McDonnell (Moira), Gerard Horan (Mackie), Olive Tennant (Catherine), Turlough Convey (Minister)
There’s something special about films set in that turbulent time when children or adolescents begin to understand how the world works. It doesn’t matter what community such fare comes from; there is a universality to coming of age dramas. Think of Minari (Korean-US), Pather Panchali (India), Bhaji on the Beach (UK-India), Ginger and Rosa (UK), The Bay Boy (Nova Scotia, Canada), My Life as a Dog (Sweden) and American Graffiti (US): films completely different in tone and ethnicity and yet each is endearing and enlightening about their societies while attracting audiences through the innocence and awakening of young protagonists.
Kenneth Branagh has made such a film in Belfast, which has surprised and, in the main, delighted festival audiences and critics this fall and is now going into North American theatrical release. Branagh is so associated with Shakespeare as an actor and director—Henry V, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing being the most famous—that it’s hard to remember that he wasn’t born in a posh London neighbourhood. Actually, as this semi-autobiographical film testifies, he was born and spent his childhood in Belfast. It clearly made sense to Branagh, and now to the world, that he would make a coming-of-age account of Belfast in the late 1960s during a particularly traumatic time in Northern Ireland’s history.
Belfast is set in 1969, at the beginning of the 30-year “time of the troubles,” when the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, which wanted to stay in the United Kingdom, and the Catholics, who desired a union with Ireland, engaged in a deadly guerrilla war against each other.
Branagh’s film opens in a bravura style. Buddy (played by Jude Hill but inspired by Branagh), is a 9-year-old playing in the street, when suddenly bullets are flying, cars are being burned, water hoses thrust children and women down on the street and mothers are yelling to gather their young ones. Buddy’s Protestant family lives on a mixed block, where members of the Christian faith have spent time in relative harmony for decades. Not anymore. Pa, who works in England making higher wages than he would in Belfast, wants to move the family away from the troubles but Ma knows that she’ll never have the same wonderful life—the friends, the familiar faces and places—once she leaves home.
Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe give exemplary performances as the quarreling but still in love Pa and Ma but they’re topped by Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds as Buddy’s grandparents, who are bound to their lives in Belfast. Branagh has written great parts for Dench and Hinds, showing in their banter and the looks in their eyes that theirs has been a grand romance for many decades. Hinds, in particular, is wonderful, offering bits of rueful wisdom and occasional practical tidbits for young Buddy. Any, or all, of these four could get Oscar nominations and I’ll be rooting for Hinds, who is routinely superb, like Thomas Mitchell was back in the Hollywood of the Thirties and Forties.
Despite the increasing dangers in his neighbourhood and throughout the city, Buddy has fun, falling in love for the first time with a lovely Catholic girl, Catherine, spending time with his grandfather—and stealing candy from the local shop. He tries to understand why Catholics and Protestants in Belfast hate each other and unsurprisingly can’t figure it out. One of the great things about coming-of-age films is that they can be quite random structurally—it’s the emotions that carry the story along. That, and a feeling of authenticity, which Branagh and his ensemble cast have done much to evoke.
Belfast won TIFF’s People’s Choice Award this September. Previous winners Nomadland, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech and 12 Years a Slave have gone on to win the Oscar. Will Belfast do it, too? It’s a distinct possibility.
Gaza Mon Amour
Tarzan & Arab Nasser, directors & writers
A production from France/Germany/Portugal/Palestine/Qatar
Starring: Salim Daw (Issa), Hiam Abbas (Siham), Maisa Abd Elhadi (Leila), George Ikandar (Samir)
World cinema produces delightful surprises. Case in point: Gaza Mon Amour, a gentle comedy about middle aged people who quietly fall in love in one of the least romantic spots on the Mediterranean. If Issa, a fisherman and monger, and Siham, who fixes clothes and makes them when commissioned, have political views on Gaza, we don’t hear them. Both accept the circumstances they’re living under, in a land governed in an authoritarian manner by Hamas, which is in opposition to Israel and in a far less aggressive manner, Palestine. And both work in the same outdoor market where they have seen and assessed each other for years.
Taking their cue from the internationally acclaimed Iranian cinema of Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the Nasser Brothers have created a film that avoids highbrow discussion, engaging instead with the tales of people who experience love, loss, friendship and fear in Gaza, much as they would be anywhere else in the world. Issa is a confident man, who fishes for a living, but is much more than that: he sees the world clearly and knows his position in it. Those who know Issa respect him. When he decides that it’s time to marry, though he’s getting older, his thinking is irrevocable. He understands that Siham is the perfect woman for him, and despite the objections of his sister, Issa goes for it.
Siham is initially less sure but when Issa puts himself forward to her, she realizes that he loves her, and she can accept him as her second husband. Unlike Issa, she’s been married and is now a widow, with a daughter, Leila, who is smart, modern and quite toughminded. Hiam Abbas’s portrayal of Siham is note perfect: she inhabits this woman, who has strength and intelligence and quiet fortitude without having achieved great success.
If there’s a problem with the film, it’s in the secondary plot, in which Issa has to fight off a local police inspector, who is angry that one of the fisherman’s bounties is a statue of the Greek god Apollo. Though Apollo loses his phallus in an unfortunate but quite funny accident, there wasn’t a good reason to make this tale into a major story. It would have been better to see more scenes of Siham and Issa courting. The charm in the film would have increased—never a bad idea.
Gaza Mon Amour is a fine, if slow paced, film. It evokes the cinema of the Italian neo-realists and the more modern Iranians. With Hiam Abbas, who has a significant role in the huge TV hit Succession in a starring role, one can only hope that the film will do well through streaming services. It is certainly a worthwhile film.