Truth be told, I have never been a fan of Romeo and Juliet. It is one of the reasons I do not have the same fondness for the various film incarnations of the play, including the much beloved West Side Story, as others do. So it says a lot when a film travels down this well-trodden Shakespearian road in a way that truly captures my attention.
Bestselling French novelist Rachid Djaïdani does just that with his ballsy and invigorating dramedy Hold Back. Marking his feature film debut, Djaïdani tells the tale of a struggling actor, Dorcy (Stéphane Soo Mongo), who decides to propose to his girlfriend Sabrina (Sabrina Hamid). Though a happy moment for the couple, word of the pending nuptials spreads like wildfire amongst Sabrina’s 40 brothers.
Appalled at the idea of his sister, an Arab Muslim, marrying a black Christian, eldest brother Slimane (Slimane Dazi) goes into a fit of rage. Slimane sets out on a mission to rally his 39 other brothers, who seemingly work in all aspects of French society, in hopes of tracking down and roughing up this black man who none of them have even met. This not only creates tension between Slimane and Sabrina, but also amongst the brothers as well. Some blindly side with Slimane while others feel that Sabrina is old enough to make her own choices.
Unaware of the manhunt that is going on for him, Dorcy finds resistance from some of his family and friends regarding the wedding as well. Thus raising the question how much does family and tradition really factor into love and marriage?
Part of what makes Hold Back such a pleasure to watch is the way it uses the star-crossed lover trope as a jumping off point for a more scathing commentary on double standards and modern day racism. Lines are frequently drawn on nothing more than simply “this is not how our people do things” mentality. The fascinating thing about this is that those who bang on the drums of traditional values the loudest are the same individuals who are conveniently selective when it comes to following the cultural rules themselves. For example, they drink booze during Ramadan and frequently fraternize with non-Arab women.
Djaïdani sharply shows that many cultural traditions and viewpoints have done little to evolve in the modern world. Prejudices are so deeply sown within the generational fabric that it is hard to tear apart. It spawns an internal conflict, as we see with Slimane, which manifests itself in rather ugly ways.
This ugliness is perfectly encapsulated in a brilliant bait and switch moment that will surely be jarring for some. No doubt the almost nausea inducing handheld camera work will irk some as well. However, there is something beautiful about the brash and aggressive way Djaïdani approaches the medium of film. He keeps Dorcy, Sabrina, and Slimane separate from each other, only allowing them to intersect at key points. Instead of creating melodrama between the three, Djaïdani opts to focus on Dorcy’s journey from one bad audition to the next. The interwoven audition sequences may seem out of place at first but actually carry significant weight when reflecting on themes of prejudice and isolation in the film.
Hold Back may wear the cloak of a Romeo and Juliet tale, but what lies underneath is an interesting exploration of cultural biases in modern society.
Wednesday, April 2, 6:00 pm, The Royal