Monday, April 20, 2015

Film Atlas (Kuwait): The Cruel Sea

Country: Kuwait
Title: The Cruel Sea / Bas ya Bahar (1972)
For the men and women who eke out a living on the coast of Kuwait, the sea is both friend and enemy, generous giver and ruthless taker, and at various times a meal ticket, a home and a grave. Moussaed, your typical handsome-but-poor young man is in love with Nora, your garden variety beautiful-rich-out-of-reach woman, who reciprocates his feeling despite her father’s objections. Moussaed is more successful at vetoing his dad, determining to make his fortunes as a pearl diver even though his father’s arm was paralyzed by a shark pursuing the same career. 

Once underway on a four month tour of duty, Moussaed partners with Badr, his only friend on the conspicuously solidarity-starved ship, and the two are reasonably successful at first. However, it soon becomes clear that they are playing a dangerous lottery rigged against them by both man and nature. The prolonged time spent submerged and the constant pressure changes saddle Moussaed with an excruciating earache while other illnesses plague the crew. Forced to push on anyway, his arm is caught in an underwater cleft and, after a terrifying struggle, he dies. 

Late that night Badr cuts open the clams from his ex-buddy’s basket and discovers several shimmering pearls. The ship returns from the season late. In the meantime Nora has been married against her will to a wealthy merchant. Badr gives the pearls to Moussaed’s parents, but, overcome by grief, his mother throws them back to the cruel sea.

The Cruel Sea was the first feature film from Kuwait and major landmark in Arabic cinema. The production is technically rather rough, marred by injudicious zoom shots and ambitious but frequently confusing editing and lighting that confuse several scenes, but the sweaty, sickly claustrophobia of the diving boat and the misleading serenity of the underwater photography elevate the film’s latter half. Similarly, the narrative begins rather conventionally with a pair of thwarted lovers who’ve got very little spark and at one point loses momentum during Nora’s extended wedding scene, but the story has a timeless wisdom and sadness, not to mention a great deal of thematic interest, that build towards the final acts.

Family, tradition, masculinity and life at sea, while shown as essential to community life and as cornerstones of their value system, are undermined by self-interest, parochialism and unjustifiable risk. Even dreams, the thing that movies are made of, are revealed as siren songs. In an extended flashback Moussaed’s father pursues a phantom pearl to his own disaster, and later fails to avert his son, who refuses to obey him, from an even worse fate. Conversely, Nora’s father should have been disobeyed, but can’t be, and result is also tragedy. This false choice, where respecting parental authority versus paving one’s own way both lead to misfortune, echoes the movie’s more explicit theme of an ocean on which lives both depend and end.

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