May in the Summer (2014)

Cherien Dabis May in the Summer

Written & Directed by: Cherien Dabis

Setting: Amman, Jordan

May, a Jordanian-American author, structured her first book — an exploration of Middle Eastern life and culture — around a collection of Arabic proverbs.

May in the Summer reflects this pattern, using Arabic proverbs as chapter titles in its tale of family tensions and tentative steps toward healing.

May in the Summer Still

May leaves her home in New York and returns to Amman for her wedding. Her Palestinian fiancé, a New York professor, stays behind, giving May time to reconnect with her mother Nadine (Hiam Abbass, The Visitor), her two sisters, and her estranged father. Having once run away, in the throes of passion, to marry an American, Nadine is divorced, wounded, and bitter. She is also fiercely Christian and while, at moments, her faith seems to bring her a measure of serenity, it also makes her intractable. Angry that May is marrying a Muslim, she has vowed to boycott the wedding. To further complicate matters, May isn’t sure she really wants to get married.

What evolves is a family drama, like many we’ve seen before, with a predictable pattern of family members pulling together, confronting old transgressions,  tearing apart, and coming together again. This may be a large part of the reason May in the Summer got a cool reception from critics. However, a familiar story is worthy of our attention when it’s well done. This one is buoyed by strong performances and vibrant cinematography. It also stands out because of the confluence of cultures in the story.

May in the Summer Still 2

This is primarily a movie about women — mothers, daughters, and sisters. This film actually passed The Bechdel Test — women talk about things other than men. However the male characters are, for the most part, interesting and well developed. Bill Pullman stands out as a serial adulterer and negligent father who is more complex than he seems and surprisingly likable.

This gorgeously shot movie also has a strong sense of place. I actually feel, in a sense, that I’ve “seen” Jordan through glimpses of scenery from the highway, a crowded beach at the Dead Sea, and a stark, beautiful desert. Some of these moments touch lightly on deeper issues. In one of the most memorable moments in the film, two sisters float in the Dead Sea. They reflect on the fact that across the small sea, mines are planted to deter Palestinian refugees. And peoples’ reaction to a low-flying jet soaring over the beach speaks volumes.

Religious imagery runs throughout the film, and it offers a constant view of the tension between the devoutly religious and the staunchly secular. We see it in a sister’s scorn for women veiled, from head to toe, in burqas; in Nadine’s combatant form of Christianity; and in the mingling of the sacred and the commercial, including a tacky life-sized cardboard cut-out of Jesus and the oddly named Mecca Mall.

While this story follows a familiar pattern and didn’t do much to surprise me, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is rich with images of a culture that is foreign to me. It also reflects relevant themes, and it embraces diversity in a gentle, good-humored way.

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