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.
«This cereal is so great: just like medicine. I eat it and go straight to the toilet.»
We meet the first of a parade of different home helps – young women she employs to care for her and clean the house, most of whom soon fall foul of her suspicious nature and are sacked for various offences, imagined or otherwise.
«I got married and all hell broke loose»
The claustrophobia of a film shot entirely – until this point – in Haim’s apartment, begins to grow. Suleiman offers us glimpses of a wider life: the Russian Communist Party knick-knack – a transparent slab of plastic adorned with a black bust of Lenin and the Cyrillic slogan: The Party – the Wisdom, Honour and Conscience of Our Era – which is puzzling, until we later see Haim flicking through an old photo album, explaining that her husband had been a leading Arab communist.
We gradually begin to understand where her bitterness comes from. Perhaps it is the life left unlived – the passion unexplored that we see burning in the eyes of a beautiful young woman in her twenties, glimpsing from a photography. That is Haim in her prime.
«I got married and all hell broke loose.. I kept silent through and through…what could I do? I remember everything in my life; what I have been through is a catastrophe.»
There is no direct reference to the central trauma of the Palestinians – the dispossession from their land following the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948, that is termed al-Nakba in Arabic, but Haim would have been 17 then, and presumably would have experienced those events directly.
Gradually some sense of compassion – even love – for this strange and bitter old woman begins to emerge, amid the close ups of her aged feet with twisted toes and bunions; her careful waxing of facial hair; the care with which she maintains her femininity with frequent visits to her hairdresser.
Bitterness below the surface
She is in and out of hospital and visibly becoming frailer and more stooped. Finally – after some images of an empty apartment that spark an alarm that she might have died – the film opens out to show us Haim’s neighbourhood; an attractive hilly part of middle-class Nazareth.
An ancient family video from the 1970s or ’80s is used as a segue to delve deeper into Haim’s past in a wealthy family, where her brother threw lavish parties and married a glamorous Spanish woman. Mussolini called himself Maurice when he travelled abroad. Hitler was long dead. (Assuming those names are true and not part of the fictionalised elements.)
Slipping back to those days, Haim softens, although the bitterness is always there, simmering just below the surface; «Fuck this stupid, ragged life».
«There is no direct reference to the central trauma of the Palestinians.»
She appoints another home help – a Nepalese woman recommended by her trusted friend – the hairdresser. She seems like a Godsend, and suddenly Haim is going out and about in town, putting on weight and looking younger and happier. But it does not last and she too is dismissed as selfish, scheming and lazy.
The film comes full circle – back again to Haim lying in bed, listening to the radio and calling in to an astrology-show, seeking answers to her loneliness and pain.
«You are a Cancer with your moon in Gemini – you say what is on your mind. You are a romantic but have trouble», the host tells her. «You are materialistic and imposing and your hasty behaviour leads to confrontations.»
Fade to black, roll credits … And this curiously engaging film about Mussolini’s Sister ends.
We gradually understand where her bitterness comes from. There is no direct reference to
the central trauma of the Palestinians.
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