A darkly comic cinematic look at Israeli-Arab life - review

let it be morning is about a family that is forced to return to the Arab village where a member grew up.

A scene from Let It Be Morning (photo credit: SHAI GOLDMAN)
A scene from Let It Be Morning
(photo credit: SHAI GOLDMAN)

Eran Kolirin’s Let It Be Morning, which opens in theaters nationwide on March 17 and which dominated this year’s Ophir Awards – winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and sweeping almost all the acting awards –  is a smart, darkly funny and often moving story of a man whose life suddenly falls apart. 

The fact that he is Arab and that it falls apart when he gets trapped in his home village, which the Israeli army closes off when it is searching for West Bank Palestinians who are working there illegally, gives the story a political dimension, but it does not change the essential nature and emotions of the film.

Kolirin had a huge popular and critical success in 2007 with the movie The Band’s Visit, about an Egyptian orchestra that gets stuck in a remote town in the Negev for one night, which was even turned into a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. The themes in Let It Be Morning are similar: dislocation, confinement and the discoveries that can come when events take an unforeseen turn. 

The movie, which is based on a novel by Sayed Kashua, opens when Sami (Alex Bakri) brings his wife, Mira (Juna Suleiman), and their young son home to his village for the wedding of his younger brother, Aziz (Samer Bisharat, who was in the Hulu series The Looming Tower).

At first, Sami seems to be a local son who has made good. He lives in Jerusalem and works in hi-tech. He preens a bit and the villagers at the wedding look up to him. His father (Salim Daw, who starred in the Israeli classic Avanti Popolo, as well as Oslo and in the upcoming season of The Crown), is proud of him but also wants him to move back home. He has hired builders from the West Bank to create a new home for Sami and his family.

 ALEX BAKRI and Juna Suleiman in ‘Let It Be Morning.’ (credit: Dori Media and Lev Cinemas/ Shai Goldman) ALEX BAKRI and Juna Suleiman in ‘Let It Be Morning.’ (credit: Dori Media and Lev Cinemas/ Shai Goldman)

But Sami has no intention of moving back and

we soon learn that he has a Jewish girlfriend in Jerusalem whom he is planning to see as soon as the wedding is over. He is certainly a flawed protagonist, but a likable one.

But a strange thing happens when they try to head home. The army has closed the road and will not let anyone leave. They have also cut off Internet reception and cellphone service in the village as they search for Palestinian workers who are there illegally, like those who are working on the new house for Sami.

Sami scrambles to cope with this turn of events. He and his brother try to find a spot near where the soldiers are on guard duty so he can send messages to his girlfriend and his boss that he will be home a few days later. The soldier they find there happens to be an old acquaintance from a tech course. But getting in touch with the outside world gradually becomes more difficult.

Staying in a spare room in a house that is not huge and is full of people also becomes more challenging with every day that goes by and the walls really begin to close in on Sami when Mira discovers he was having an affair. 

The movie opens out from Sami’s personal story to highlight the problems of Israel’s Arab citizens. There are armed gangs in the village – the same kind of criminals who have made headlines so much in recent years – and they are shaking down Abed (Ehab Elias Salami), a childhood friend of Sami’s, who tries to earn a living as a cab driver.

Abed, who pines for his ex and longs to become a success and win her back, is the heart and soul of the movie as he spirals into a dangerous state of depression. Aziz, who is smart and funny, can only find a job on a customer service phone line and barely seems interested in his bride, while she spends more and more time cleaning. Sami, who seemed to have it all at the beginning, is left wondering how long his boss will tolerate an employee he cannot reach and whether his girlfriend will feel something similar.

Meanwhile, he is stuck in one room with his wife, who wants to know if she disgusts him and who does an angry and beautiful dance in the courtyard – in one of the film’s highlights – that illuminates her frustration. The entire cast is outstanding, and Bakri, Suleiman and Salami are the standouts. 

There are a lot of ideas, characters and plots in this film and most of them work beautifully. It shows how Arab citizens feel caught in between Jewish Israel and the West Bank Palestinians, but it is also a human story of a man who finds himself forced into passivity as much of what forms his identity is stripped away overnight.

Most of the cast evidently felt much the same, as the characters and chose not to attend the world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last May (due to the film being categorized as “Israeli”) and several sent speeches to the Ophir Awards but did not take part in the ceremony. But if you absorb the story told in the film, these absences and the controversy they generated should come as no surprise. 

There are a few moments that seem heavy-handed. Early on, during the wedding, some doves are released but they cannot fly and simply stand around and then scatter – a too-obvious metaphor for the predicament of the characters. As if this scene did not make the point clearly enough, these earthbound doves are brought back into the story later, when Mira angrily swats at them with a broom.  

But the occasional annoying metaphor detracts little from the overall effect of the intricate story. The movie was filmed before the pandemic but now that we have all experienced lockdowns, the movie feels especially relevant, as we can all identify with the feeling of being stuck.