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Bookstore, The
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by Trevor Gensch

"More than just a tale about books"
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2003 BRISBANE FILM FESTIVAL: A proud and jealous man. An ambitious and devoted wife. A mourning and youthful mother. A mysterious traveller who will impact on all their lives.

Sounds pretty dramatic, doesn’t it? It sums up but does not fully describe the charming Tunisian film The Bookstore, the debut feature from Montreal-trained but Tunisian born and bred director Nawfel Saheb-Ettaba. The personal lives of these four individuals is woven around the dusty, rustic setting of an old bookstore, buried in the backstreets of this beautiful North African city.

The restless wanderer Jamil (Ahmed El Haffiene) returns to his home town and starts working for Tarek (Yadh Beji), the owner of the local bookstore. He is welcome for the help; as his father passed away and has found the workload to be unbearable. Tarek’s wife, Leila (Hend Sabri) is happy for the help also, she sees Jamil as their ticket out of the cramped confines of the bookstore and into a palatial apartment in the better part of town. If Jamil can be convinced to take on the business full-time, they can move out, and she can pursue her main passion, singing.

But Tarek’s mother Aicha (Martine Gafsi) is proving difficult. A young and beautiful widow, she is still in mourning over the death of her husband. But she finds herself unusually attracted to the tall and handsome Jamil, but is worried about being the focus of gossip in the close-knit community. She decides to go and live with her sister and not confront the problem, compounding Tarek and Leila’s problems; they must remain in the government-subsidised house or they lose lucrative benefits.

Leila, not at all happy with yet another delay being offered from her apologetic husband as to why they cannot get on with their lives, decides to take her life in her own hands and moves out, possibly never to return…

The Bookstore is at its heart a story of romance, rediscovered passions, both in the matters of love and personal desire. The message it portrays is an interesting look at the issues of non-conformity in a society which accepts nothing but stringent adherence to tradition. Tarek is upset his wife wishes to sing professionally, he feels it will bring shame on his family and begs her not to. But she wishes to follow her heart, singing her with joy.

Aicha shocks her son and the neighbourhood by daring to show feelings for another (younger) man. She becomes the butt of town gossip as tongues wag and fingers are pointed at her supposed indiscretion and lack of respect for her recently departed husband.

I was utterly entranced by this film, its captivating use of stunning visuals and beautiful Arabian music (sung by the character of Leila) providing an intoxicating mix. Of particular note is the cinematography, capturing the feel of the locations. The dusty, narrow Tunisian streets are beautifully shot, counterpointed by the beautiful cityscapes afforded by the photography from the roof of the bookstore and the surrounding streets.

And for a film that takes place pretty much exclusively within the confines of the dusty bookshop it is a credit to the Director that the frame always finds something new to look and marvel at.

Everyone in this film, even down to the thankless bit-part players, give faultless performances, but of particular note are Ahmed El Haffiene, who plays Jamil, and Martine Gafsi, playing Aicha. Ahmed could be cast tomorrow as a Hollywood leading man, his dark good looks and piercing eyes make him a mesmerising screen presence. Martine is also very good as the widower Aicha, a still young women facing a life of enforced spinsterhood because of what society expects her to act like. She brings a quiet and dignified intensity to her part, never allowing it to descend into a display of lust or overt affection.

This film also has to have one of the most romantic, most original and most beautiful ending sequences I have ever seen. The last 10 minutes alone added a fitting climax to a film that had already exceeded my expectations and more.

A true delight.

The Bookstore had its first screening at the Brisbane International Film Festival on the 30 July. Interested film-goers can take advantage of further screenings on the 1st and 4th of August. Enquire at the BIFF Box Office at Hoyts Regent, or ring the hotline for further information on 07 3007 3007. Alternatively you can book and pay for your tickets online (

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originally posted: 08/02/03 08:07:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Edinburgh Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Edinburgh Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Brisbane Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Brisbane Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/29/04 michael tune very, very good movie. Saw it Berlin. Amazing. 5 stars
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  02-Aug-2003 (NR)



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