Film: The String **
Release Date: 18th October 2010
Running time: 93 mins
Director: Mehdi Ben Attia
Starring: Claudia Cardinale, Antonin Stahly-Vishwanadan, Salim Kechiouche, Driss Ramdi
Growing up, Claudia Cardinale had always planned to become a teacher. That is until she won ‘The Most Beautiful Italian Girl in Tunisia’ beauty pageant in 1957. A ridiculous title, for sure, and one that she still laughs at today, but without it she may never have gone on to make well over sixty films, including ‘The Professionals’, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ and ‘The Pink Panther’. Now seventy-two-years-old and still going strong, the actress once referred to as "Italy’s happiest invention after Spaghetti" appears in Mehdi Ben Attia’s The String.
Malik (Antonin Stahly-Vishwanadan) isn’t looking forward to his return to Tunisia after living in France. Not only is he struggling to cope with the loss of his father, he has yet to admit his sexual orientation to his mother, resulting in the resurfacing of his childhood anxieties.
Greeted warmly by those closest to him, the architect is immediately confronted by his mother Sara (Claudia Cardinale), who hopes and expects that he finally manages to settle, subtly hinting at marriage.
Living in a class conscious society, Malik decides to hide his true feelings and lives a lie, hooking up with a friend whose only demand of him is that he can father a child for herself and her female partner.
Their deception, along with plans to wed, is placed in jeopardy when Malik meets his mother’s handsome handyman, Balil (Salim Kechiouche), and they begin a tentative relationship. Will Malik finally lose the ties that hold him back, or will his forbidden love be undone by their rapidly changing culture and a mother’s expectations?
In the one and only trashy scene during the movie, Malik is shown having vivacious sex with rough trade. This moment alone suggests that director Mehdi Ben Attia is more concerned with class and cultures rather than gender identity, as the underdeveloped scene sits out of place in an otherwise romantic fable. Malik’s desire to seek prostitution seems a little hard to swallow when for the majority his looks and personality seemingly get him whatever he wants. Disappointingly, his darker side is never truly realised and never explored again.
Handled with more care is the subtext about class. Although a little wishy-washy, the feel-good message here, of tolerance and love, far outweighs the agonies of coming out of the closet. It also doesn’t include a silly piece of string that weakly offers a visual metaphor for Malik’s childhood struggles.
If tugging at the string hanging from his shirt isn’t odd enough, it gets stranger still, during a brief cutaway when Malik is imprisoned by it, the string wrapped around him so tightly he screams at the camera in surreal fashion. The award for Most Out Of Place Movie Scene goes here, like it’s been ripped out of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, yet wouldn’t be so bad if more flashes of inspiration were to follow.
They don’t – but this is a good thing, because thankfully, other than an unnecessary explanation about his childhood anxieties and a final scene on the beach with such forced dialogue as “If I let go of the string, will you swim?” that isn’t as clever as it thinks it is, the title of the movie is redundant; the real story focusing on love and the social stigma it may sometimes bring.
Some excellent performances rescue this far too obvious tale, with Claudia Cardinale’s Sara and Salim Kechiouche’s Balil (in a role he’s played on numerous occasions now) stealing the show and holding the viewers waning interest begging for some form of surprise. It’s a shame that there’s little invention here (there’s certainly nothing new to say), because the luscious backdrops and pleasant enough score have the makings of something quite beautiful – instead it all feels made for daytime television; hardly surprising to learn that Mehdi Ben Attia has done little other than.
A few scenes stand out: a sweet exchange between Malik and Bilal when the latter requires some nice shoes to gain entry to a club, mother catching them in a morning clinch, and the oddly amusing wedding day. But these are often ruined by unintentionally daft dialogue such as “Don’t forget, if she dies, text me” and “Tonight we’re not cousins – tonight, we’re truly cousins”.
All this taken into account, the biggest criticism is that by the final act the script offers no conflict whatsoever. Mother suddenly goes from disgusted to delighted, contradicting the opening two acts with her sudden approval, while arguably Malik’s biggest foe, his grandmother, who realises that the marriage is merely a device to cover up the pregnancy, is equally just as pleased, as long as he comes and visits every once in a while. All in all, it’s a great excuse for a party – that’ll be the entire final act then…
Perhaps because it’s devoid of fresh ideas, or maybe because its subtext is handled more satisfyingly, The String is instead suited to daytime television and a waste of Claudia Cardinale’s acting abilities. She does seem to be having fun though – shame that can’t be said for the rest of us.