The following review was written by Elias Shakkour
Thanks to its portrayal of Palestine and Palestinians and its contribution to raising awareness of critical issues, Villa Touma offers a masterful representation of the complexity of Palestinian history. The film weaves together various themes through a story that is definitely atypical but nevertheless powerful and deeply telling.
The film takes place in a Ramallah mansion dating back to the period before the 1967 Six-Day War—an event whose short duration belies the catastrophic toll it has taken on Palestinian lives. The mansion is inhabited by Juliette, Violette, and Antoinette, three middle-aged Christian Palestinian sisters whose eccentric mannerisms and ways are at once anachronistic yet representative of attitudes and perspectives that continue to reverberate in Palestinian society today. As members of the pre-1967 Palestinian bourgeoisie, they harness a self-image that towers over others in society just as their opulent villa towers over the city that surrounds them.
Into their fossilized lives comes Badia, their much younger niece whose presence, from the movie’s first scene, highlights the uncomfortable clash between the old and the new—a theme that runs throughout the movie. Having grown up in an orphanage after losing both of her parents, Badia is young, innocent, naïve, and far removed from the reality of her aunts’ existence. In her initial encounters with her aunts, when faced with the domineering pronouncements of her oldest—and sternest—aunt Juliette about the rigid rules she must adhere to, Badia does not produce any responses whatsoever. Her silence conveys her vulnerability and her inability to relate to the otherworldly time warp she has been thrown into after outgrowing the orphanage and needing a place to stay.
The generational clash is perhaps most evident in Juliette’s unrelenting interest in finding a suitable husband for Badia. Young Palestinians today have grown weary of older generations’ obsessive fixation on marriage as the gateway to a legitimate, acceptable existence. In the movie, Badia does not vocally express any opposition, a manifestation of the way Palestinians in her situation today silently go through the motions, stifled by the dominance of the marriage-glorifying attitude of their elders and disinclined to speak out. Although Juliette’s insistence on marrying off Badia at the tender age of eighteen hearkens back to much earlier times and is not very representative of the Palestinian parents of 2015—who typically don’t start playing the “you need to get married” record until their children’s twenties—the phenomenon in and of itself does continue to be ubiquitous today.
We see the awkward coexistence of the old and the new in the few scenes in which the aunts venture out of their villa, where time has stood still, into the bustling streets of Ramallah. The hubbub of the city is almost a jolting reminder of the film’s broader social context and background. Yet despite the striking contrast between the two realities, they represent a common theme subtly interwoven into the movie’s plot: the all-encompassing effect of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is the trauma of the 1967 occupation, and the aunts’ inability to properly cope with it, that has left them frozen in time; meanwhile, in response to the Israeli occupation, the Ramallah around them continues to pulsate with the Palestinians’ tenacious pursuit of their cause.
We see Palestinian flags adorning the streets and symbolizing the Palestinian cause; we see posters bemoaning conflict casualties; we see a desperate young man seeking refuge with Juliette and company as he tries to avoid being killed by the Israelis. Although the film does not actively emphasize the conflict, it very aptly represents the conflict’s pervasive effect on every aspect of Palestinians’ lives. It is impossible to conceptualize Palestinians’ post-occupation lives without including the conflict. As a Palestinian who grew up in the West Bank and Jerusalem in the immediate wake of the First Intifada and experienced the Second in my mid-teens, I cannot fathom a conflict-free childhood or adolescence, even after having lived away from Palestine and Israel for more than twelve years.
The theme of trauma is further manifested in the three aunts’ personal lives. As we get to know them throughout the film as more than the rigid, robotic specters they initially appear to be, we learn that they each suffered a romantic trauma that left wounds that have yet to heal, just as the wound of the Palestinian people is far from being healed. Badia, too, experiences trauma when she learns that the man she has fallen in love with and whose child she is carrying has fallen victim to the Israelis.
Badia’s love affair sheds light on an important dimension of Palestinian society: the divide between Christians and Muslims. Badia falls in love with a Muslim man, which—like her father’s marriage to a Muslim woman—is patently unacceptable to Juliette. Although many Palestinian Christians and Muslims are tolerant of each other, intermarriage continues to be a highly stigmatized taboo, and deep prejudice exists on both sides. In Palestine and Israel, many Christians have elitist attitudes toward Muslims—not unlike Juliette’s. Meanwhile, Christian families, who are vastly outnumbered, are often subject to mistreatment by intolerant Muslims.
Although the specific details of the storyline in Villa Touma are not necessarily typical of Palestinian life today, the film brings to light themes, realities, and struggles that are very relevant today. The film uses an atypical story whose characters at times display exaggerated attitudes to provide a nevertheless very current image of the Palestinian realities of 2015. The film ends with the gruesome death of Badia, leaving her child orphaned, just as Badia herself was orphaned. Perhaps this is a reminder that some struggles continue from generation to generation—like the struggle of the Palestinians, still as real and pervasive today as it was in 1948 and in 1967.
Elias Shakkour is a Christian Palestinian living in Chicago. He is an instructor of interpreting for the MA in Translation and Interpreting at the University of Illinois. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Linguistics at the University of Illinois.