Under the Fig Trees (2021) Eye for Film Film Review

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“The stories that flourish here are rooted in reality, wrapped in the bruised flesh of familiar misdeeds.” | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Directors’ Fortnight

Through the permeable border of day, she walks. We don’t have enough geography to know that it’s in the east, the cockcrow as a compass as much as a clock. Against and between this border, the darkness of the body against the light of the sky. Orange and not yet blue and sweeping hills.

In this golden hour, they are waiting for the truck marked SABER, the man they will call today and still perhaps boss. The first words “she took it all and left” and there are ambitions and laments at the same time. The morning not yet broken, they swallow a glass of coffee, small and strong like any of those who will perch and carp in the bed of this vehicle.

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In the orchard. Along winding, winding roads, twists and turns that would require slowness to catch your breath. Close-ups of faces, veiled heads and colors both bright and muted like a fanfare of careful trumpets. The score a first moment of music, generally the sound of the landscape, the rhythms of the engines the rustling of the leaves. In those sculpted faces of workers young and old, I had a thought of Soviet realism, a certain level of pastoral propaganda layering its artifices.

Figs don’t care. Their flesh is hard or soft depending on their calendars. Their branches will bend, but only to the extent that the wood and weather conditions warrant. Their leaves will flatten out from a cut to pad the hard, faded plastic of the crates. Large and solid and as structured as our frame.

A collision of modernity, “like the first person to fall in love” after the dragon smoke of some species of vape. Wondering what smells sweeter on the hillside, the cotton candy hanging in the water vapor or the ripening figs dappled in that leaf-strewn sun. Sweat on the foreheads of the workers, luster on the lips of the chatterers. “A lot of things are happening in the orchards”, “We can’t trust them”.

Erige Sehiri has several short documentaries, a feature-length documentary (2018’s The Railway Men), and this is her first fiction film. Although the fiction doesn’t do much, and I don’t mean that as a mean thing. “Is there another girl?”, “See you at the Aziza [supermarket]”, “It’s cold near the yogurts”. I quote not for the sense of the everyday but for the rattle of routine. She co-writes here with Peggy Hamann and Ghalya Lacroix, the latter perhaps best known for Blue Is the Warmest Color Here also life and love, food and foliage.

Taht el Karmouss is ‘Sous Les Figues’ but the synechdoche of the fruit and the tree requires a certain proximity. In the arbor, the ardor. Stories within stories, the relative awkwardness of Bollywood being inappropriate, the aches and pains of age. More water, still waiting. Call and answer, call to prayer, phone call. Post-prandial plucked strings, moments when reflection is needed. “Nothing is happening here” and it is and it is both false.

Frida Marzouk’s camerawork belies that this is, as far as I can tell, a feature debut as a cinematographer. Although often credited in electric roles, on productions as varied as Black Swan, John Wick and Capernaum, the border between document and documentary is carefully drawn. Sense of observation without interpolation is difficult, especially in a medium as prone to falsehood as film, but it never feels wrong. Amin Bouhafa’s score brings perhaps the most significant layers of artificiality, and even then it feels less of a lie than another lens. This project is part of a great year for the composer, also Gagarin and The Man Who Sold His Skin. Here much more rooted, literally therefore, rooted in a green place where figs grow. A land of dramas and scandals whose content is less fantastic than Facebook, less astral than pastoral. It’s not that there aren’t any bad guys, only the village. People bring people with them. Both the eagle and the star could be a symbol of projected power, but they are the ones chosen by men. Fruit falling from trees is controlled and concealed. The dispossessed, the distant, the law and the land.

In the poster and advertisement, it is described as a fictional film project and it has the feel of something made up, derived from the life of an amateur cast. “You can barely see it” “but it’s still there”. You learn to see the signs, the characters who share their names with the cast, but maybe not quite. An overall minimalism, a simplicity that does not speak of a lack of sophistication but of a commitment to form, to feel. We see faces close enough to marvel, wandering with them by hand through the thickets. The stories that flourish here are rooted in reality, wrapped in the bruised flesh of familiar misdeeds. Careful leaves cannot protect one person from another. Around different leaves, differently maintained, tea and sympathy and their corresponding lacks provide a contrasting quantum of comfort.

The song sung as they sip is untranslated. Tears don’t need to be. There is sometimes a point in the woodwinds, a ferocity in the flute. God avenges, forgives, gives strength. Breath forced and shaped with distinct dexterities to make something beautiful. Under the fig trees the same. It is not the first but the next moment that creates the rhythm, the melody, the counter-melody. Action and reaction and beyond. Questions of rent, salary, justice, rewards.

The chatter of make-up and mirrors is not translated. Looks don’t need to be. Scoring a third time contrasts with the impending scratching of the crate on the load bed, the entire geometry of overlapping supply chains. It is not so, it is the other. God be with you. Work secured by various means, the bright blue of the baling twine and the strong slide of the bolt. Under the fig trees the same. It is not closure but locking that creates certainty, end, opportunity. It is not the closing of the eyes but the gaze that creates the certainty, the end, the opportunity. Song and smile and so on. Applause and clasping of hands, singing giving way to something more orchestral than organic. In this cycle, other stories, a number of other songs.

The cover of Dima Dima by Nour Arjour plays in the credits, a moment of additional reflection. I’ll steal my last words from a translation of these as they also work for the movie. “And water your plants with tears in my eyes, No matter how much you betray me, you are dear to me”.

Reviewed on: May 21, 2022

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