Tunisian filmmaker Nacer Khemir spins an exquisite, mystical tone poem of a film with “Bab’Aziz – The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul.”
Bab’Aziz is a blind old man who is traveling by foot across a desert with his granddaughter Ishtar (yes, Ishtar – the kid’s parents were obviously Elaine May fans). They are heading for a gathering of dervishes, but Bab’Aziz claims to have no idea where or when the gathering will take place. He only knows that his faith will lead him to the happening. To amuse his granddaughter on the trip, he relates a strange story of a handsome prince who chases a gazelle across the sands, only to find a desert spring that brings out his contemplative awareness to the point that he abandons his luxuries to ponder the questions of the soul.
Along the way, the old man and little girl encounter other travelers who are also en route to this fabled gathering. Everyone has a life-changing experience to share, and the film shoots off into different tangents regarding each person’s mini-adventure. Initially, the technique seems disruptive, but eventually there is a point to this process as the various stories enhance and enfold the Bab’Aziz’s mission.
But the film’s true magic comes in its production values. Mahmoud Calari’s cinematography captures the complexities and subtlety of the desert in vibrant hues and the richness of the Tunisian settings and costumes. The film’s Sufi-influenced soundtrack offers a wealth of hypnotic, sensual music, to the extreme point that one could almost call this movie a musical. An appreciation of dervish culture will help in understanding the film’s trajectory (a full understanding is even better, particularly regarding behavior that may seem odd to Western audiences).
Considering the scarcity of North African films in commercial distribution, the arrival of “Bab’Aziz – The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul” is, to misuse a dervish cliche, something worth singing and dancing about.