The summer Cinematheque African Film series continued with the 1996 Tunisian film Un Ete a La Goulette
(written and directed by Ferid Boughedir), quite different in tone from the starker, social realism of the Algerian film Bab el-Oued City
. Set in the Mediterranean resort town of La Goulette, only a few months before the outbreak of the 1967 Six-Day War, Un Ete a La Goulette
is a nostalgic, almost farcical look back on Tunisia's vanished past. La Goulette is a rather cosmopolitan town, with various ethnic and religious communities living side by side. All of the main characters lives in a tenement complex: Youssef, a Muslim ticket collector on the TGM Train (Tunis-Goulette-Marsa), and his daughter Meriem; the Jewish restraunt owner Jojo and his daughter Tina; and the Sicilian Catholic ironware merchant Giuseppe and his daughter Gigi (the other main characters include their extended families, the wifes, younger siblings and cousins, divided into two packs of teenage boys seperated by a few years, neighbors, local eccentrics, the cafe owner Hamouda, and the dour landlord that everyone refers to as the Double Hadj, a mean, greedy old man, who affects an "Oriental aspect," but who is tender and loving towards his caged birds). The three teenage girls are all apprentice dress-makers; recently their not much older teacher committed suicide on her wedding night after being forced into an arranged marriage (which was arranged by the Hadj); the three of them make a pact, they will lose their virginity by August 15th, by men of their choice (an affront to all three of their father's cultures, all of which are steeped in machimso and honor). Their fathers, quite good and old friends, despite their religious and ethnic differences (they were all members of the same soccer team growing up, along with the cafe owner Hamouda), spend most of the time drinking, fishing, playing cards and shooting the breeze, oblivious to their daughter's plans (they are also too busy with their mistresses, a fact of life that their wives do not fully accept). The narrative is rather episodic, most of the first third of the film is taken up establishing the characters's relationships to each other and their town. People, for the most part are very tolerant of each other sharing each others foods, friendships, and even religious symbols (the three girls make their pact by swearing an oath to the Madonna; Jojo breaks kosher rules to eat his Arabic friends food; everyone comes together at a Jewish wedding; Jojo and Youseff help carry the Catholic Madonna through the streets; the girls pray together, etc., etc.). Though there is a constant reminder of the growing tensions in the Middle East, courtesy of the radio, there are few anti-Semetic remarks (the Hadj says he won't eat Jewish grub; an Arab man in the cafe talks about how you can't trust Jews, but he is mocked by the rest of the crowd), and when the local eccentric runs through the streets screaming that war is impending, he is ignored; but then a man rushes in and says Claudia Cardinale (who makes a cameo in the film as herself) has arrived back in Tunisia, as her father's family is from La Goulette, and everyone runs to her hotel to catch a glimpse of the movie star. Two events drive the narrative at this point: the upcoming wedding of Tina's sister, and the Hadj's growing obsession with Miriem, after he spies her bathing.
At the wedding, however, all hell breaks loose, as the girls have decided who they are going to lose their virginity too, local boys of different faiths. When the Hadj finds out and reports it to the father, they freak, as that is the ultimate taboo. Each curses the other and their heritage, and the friendships, while not completely shattered, are definitely estranged. Youseff, Jojo, and Guiseppe won't talk to each other, won't let their daughters out of the house, and want nothing to do with each other. The Hadj's interest in Meriem increases, when he visits her house, she teases him with her nubile body; he insist that she take the veil, and then asks for her hand in marriage, but is rebuffed by Youssef. Eventually, their friendships wins out and the three of them reconcile, and soon their daughters are out planning to lose their viriginity again, this time at the ruins of Carthage. When the snooping Hadj finds out again, he reports it to the three fathers who resolve to work together to stop their daughters, but they are too late, and the three of them get away, with an alibi even (the fathers find them praying together in a shrine, barely able to contain their smiles). The Hadj is angry and begins to evict people from the tenement, so Meriem decides to sleep with him to placate him; she covers her nude body with the veil and goes to his house (it's pretty funny, her veil snags on a nail on the street), when she reveals her body to him, he has a heart attack and dies, so alls well that ends well I guess. A few months later, Youssef meets Jojo and Giuseppe at the train station, their friend Hamouda has finally decided to go fishing with them; title appear on screen telling us that this was the day before the outbreak of the Six-Day War, which prompted a mass exodus of both Christians and Jews from Tunisia (but not all of them, as the film implies, at least according to the professor who moderated the discussion after the film).
The movie was very funny, and sexy, a lot of it was played rather broadly, almost farcically in some respects (one of the funniest jokes occurred when Meriem is teasing the Hadj, who is drinking a glass of milk, the panic-stricken, quavering Hadj spills some milk on her leg after she begins to show her thighs to him), and the film is sweet and nostalgic. But the film never forgets to at least allude to the darker aspect of La Goulette lurking beneath the surface: the simmering tension of the Middle Eastern conflict, the disparity in treatment of the women, the poverty, the repressive machimso, which at least forged strong bonds between mother and daughter, the sexual double-standards, the taboos against exogamy.