The Syrian Bride is ostensibly about a bride, Mona (Clara Khoury), who lives in the Golan Heights. Mona is Druze, an Islamic ethnic minority. Her homeland was part of Syria until it was annexed by Israel in 1967. Once Mona crosses the border to marry her Syrian groom, the state of Israel may never allow her to return. The film begins on the morning of Mona's wedding, but it is shot from the point of view of Amal (Hiam Abbass), Mona's older sister, whose longstanding marital travails are emblematic of the oppression of women in Druze society. The bride's father is a former Israeli prisoner, and on the day of his daughter's wedding, despite warnings from the Israeli police, he participates in a demonstration in support of the new Syrian president. The plethora of subplots involving the family do not all have such far-reaching social or political implications, but The Syrian Bride is nevertheless a treatise rather than a film. Unrelentingly pedantic, it's also utterly humorless.

The Syrian Bride is unusual for its cinematic collaboration-an Israeli director and a Palestinian screenwriter-but the subject of mixed marriages, of lovers at the border of Arab-speaking countries, was explored much more successfully in Randa Chahal-Sabbag's The Kite (the Silver Lion winner at Venice in 2003). Chahal-Sabbag's film is humorous in its portrayal of the predicament that confronts family members who arrange a marriage for a Palestinian bride and an Israeli groom. It introduces endearing Muslim viragos, and through its charming touches of magic realism is more emotionally evocative than The Syrian Bride. The Kite explores, with depth and far less didacticism, the meaning of brides, of the hope they represent for divided families and, sometimes, for divided nations.

Inexplicably, director Eran Riklis (Cup Final) shot The Syrian Bride in a widescreen format that works against the intimacy of a family drama. Had the landscape or the border been a character in the film, as it was in The Kite, Cinemascope might have connected the characters to the land, or if this had been an ensemble film, the widescreen format would have melded content with form, created a visual democracy. But as it is, it only heightens the sense we have that The Syrian Bride is flawed by a dearth of feeling. Riklis' direction is so misconceived that in the last scene, when the border is traversed and he has his best chance to use the widescreen format to capture the most emotional moment in the film, the action instead takes place off-camera.

Absent the considerable talents of Hiam Abbass (Red Satin, Paradise Now) and Clara Khoury (Rana's Wedding), The Syrian Bride would be unrelieved drudgery. Abbass, who belongs to that class of actresses-Irene Papas, Anna Magnani, Melina Mercouri- whose lined faces evoke the eternal feminine, immediately transforms Amal into an archetype of female experience. Amal enjoys respect, even influence, in the family circle. but in the outside world she is powerless, except in one very important way: She inspires the younger women, Mona and her daughters, to break the destructive cycle of Islamic patriarchy. Despite an awful script and equally bad direction, Abbass is riveting as the woman who endures. Khoury has perhaps three lines in the entire film, but through an astounding quiescence, she communicates both dread and anticipation. Her stillness is the perfect articulation of a woman forced to straddle far too many borders on her wedding day, political as well as social, but also the one every bride must cross, from the arms of her family to those of her husband. Khoury's performance is outstanding, and together she and Abbass carry the entire weight of this dreary drama.

-Maria Garcia