There is something of The Odd Couple about Juna Suleiman’s cynically humorous docu-fiction portrait of the old, sarcastic Arab woman Haim’s life and loves (or perhaps hates) in Mussolini’s Sister. And – before you ask – the title is certainly eye-catching. But it’s left unexplained until way into this oddball snapshot of the life of an octogenarian Nazareth woman, when we learn that she really did have a brother called Mussolini … Oh, and one called Hitler, who died in infancy. Honestly. Or perhaps not. It is never quite clear where the fact fades or merges into fiction in what is at times a hilarious examination of the human condition.
An intimate portrait
We are used to seeing films about Israel, Palestine, the Middle East that focus on the politics, the wars, the rage, the violence, and the agony. Suleiman’s film touches on all those subjects, but only as incidental influences seen in television images (a political assassination, blood dripping from a ledge; Syrian cities being bombed to bits; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warning electors to get out and vote for Likud to counter the «large numbers of Arabs voting»).
Instead, her subject is much more intimate and will be uncomfortably close to home to many viewers: the small, daily negativity, pettiness and bitter ego-driven projections that cause so much pain and harm between people and to ourselves.
«I remember everything in my life; what I have been through is a catastrophe.» – Haim
Initially there is not much to like about Haim, whom we first see in her neat and roomy apartment in Nazareth, lying in bed while reading a newspaper agony column that is full of despair for love’s labour’s lost.
She switches between stations on the radio, silencing the Voice of Israel, before muttering «whatever, fuck you» when the next, Arabic language station states «our seconds perish to embrace the past … thank you for listening».
Gradually we are introduced to Haim’s significant others: first her handsome hairdresser, next her 55-year-old son, whom she treats as if he is still a child – cooking for him and then scolding him for getting fat, or warning him against consorting with «loose women».
Mother and son are glued together by what almost amounts to a mutual loathing, with constant bickering over inconsequential matters: «When will you have mercy and grind the meat a bit thinner?» the son asks, adding «You, mother, are useless – you’ve been doing the same for 80 years».
It all seems a bit dreary until humour starts to creep in between Haim’s judgemental and bitter remarks.
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