Screens at CIFF: 10/12 & 10/20 & 10/22
World premiere: 5 September, 2012, Venice Film Festival

The title of Yema, I will begin by pointing out, is the Arabic word for "mother" or at least this is what I intuit from the movie itself. I gather that it has been put on the festival circuit under this transliteration instead of its actual translation because, let's face it, we don't need another damn movie called Mother.

That being said, the content of Yema is also "mother",; and this is clearly the case from its hypnotic opening sequence in which a woman (Djamila Sahraoui, the writer and director as well), prepares the body of a young man (Nabil Oudihat) for burial. We watch as she slowly and methodically drags water to her isolated desert home, digs a hole, and cleans him and dresses the corpse of what we understand more because of the precision with which Sahraoui stages this action and how much she lingers over every step, than because the film goes out of its way to clarify it, is a young man who was dearly loved. For all that the long, unblinking takes are set at a steadily objective distance away from the action, the cumulative effect of watching this patient, silent woman moving fixedly about her task is unrelentingly tender and pathetic.

As it progresses, Yema starts to feel like a film built entirely out of ellipses. There's actually a very simple plot that spins out, but it is built almost entirely in despite of the things the characters go out of their way to avoid saying. Let it suffice, for now, to note that the mother (her name is given in all the press material as "Ouardia", but I didn't catch that in the movie itself) is put under guard by a one-armed man (Samir Yahia), a failed bombmaker, we find out, for breaking Islamic law, which decrees that only a man may bury another man. The woman has a history with the rebel commander (Ali Zarif) who issues this order, noting that he betrayed the dead soldier, Tarek, that she has just been tending to; it is revealed in methodical bits and pieces that this man is also her son, and she blames him for perpetrating the attack that left his brother dead, the two of them fighting on opposites side of the civil conflict taking place in whatever unnamed (but probably Algerian?) North African land where this all plays out.

Central metaphors don't get a lot noisier than that, but Yema saves itself a lot of trouble by revealing this situation so cautiously, to the point where huge portions of the first half don't make much sense as narrative, that by the time we understand that the conflict is about a mother whose family has been torn asunder by civil war, the barbaric obviousness of the "brother vs. brother" motif really doesn't register. It is, first and above all, a severe and heartbreaking family drama, and whatever great meaning it imports comes in after that. Which is, I think, for the best, given that Yema is already flirting quite enough with a kind of schematic misery-by-numbers filmmaking, to have to bear the weight of being an overt metaphor, on top of it.

Flirts with it; never quite becomes it. There is definitely a concern in the first third or even half of the 90-minute feature that this is all playing a little bit too much by the handbook for meaningfully slow-moving domestic cinema set in the underdeveloped world; though Sahraoui and her cinematographer, Raphaël O'Byrne, frame the scrubby landscape particularly well, with an eye toward fixing the people within the context of that landscape (and very near the end of the movie is a specific composition of the mother, bunched up in a ball on the ground, that's as flawlessly executed as I can imagine), the stillness of the images, the slowness with which they are cut together, and the hardness of the color scheme all feel awfully familiar from a lot of movies. It's a good version of the thing it is; but the thing it is has become a bit played out.

So it's all the more rewarding to watch the film adopt its domestic focus as it moves along, for as the focus shifts from "the hardscrabble life of a taciturn Arab woman" to "the fabulistic story of a war-rent family", Yema becomes both more personal and more interesting: the mother herself emerges as not just an icon but a feeling, suffering being, and that shift alone is enough to bump the movie into a far more effective register. That this all happens so slowly is frustrating (the strain to keep the opening sequence from developing too quickly palpable at times), but that much more rewarding once we're actually plunged into the meat of the film, and Sahraoui can explore her scenario instead of just her location. And this she does with great richness and humanity.

It is, ultimately, the very definition of a festival film: the kind that is probably not special enough or interesting enough to register as an essential piece of world cinema, but much too good not to find an audience outside of its homeland. It feels deep and fully, in its penetrating depiction of the way that human beings can cause hurt to other beings and also atone for that hurt; it presents its particular family and their home with clarity and intelligence, and within the limits it sets for itself, it's hard to imagine that it could be any more rewarding.