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San Diego Jewish Film Festival preview: 'Villa Jasmin'

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By Laurel Corona

LA JOLLA, California – Each of us has a narrative about our family’s past, whether it’s shared around the table at family celebrations, or kept quietly to ourselves. When Serge Boccara (Clement Sibony) sets out from France  to Tunisia with his pregnant wife Jeanne (Judith Davis) in director Ferid Boughedir’s 2008 film Villa Jasmin, he discovers the power of his own childhood memories and the fragility of the story he has constructed around them.

 The film (based on a novel by Serge Moati) moves between the present and the past as the story evolves, blending the two to interesting effect when Serge occasionally intrudes on scenes that happened before he was born. Sometimes he is a mere observer and sometimes he is a participant in those scenes as it becomes clear that the driving force behind his desire to come to Tunisia is to come to grips with what he considers to be abandonment by both his parents when he was young.  “Your parents didn’t abandon you,” his wife tells him.  “They died.”  Of course that’s different, but even after all these years, it doesn’t feel that way to Serge.  “My mother preferred death to her son,” he thinks at one point, believing–however irrationally–that she let herself give in to cancer after his father’s death.

Serge Junior discovers quite quickly that the past will be difficult to revive when he sees that the villa is now a run-down electric cable company.  The courtyard and grounds are in ruins, and he is too overcome by disappointment to want to step inside. He persists, though, visiting people and places all over the city, and little by little his parents’ story opens up with such vividness that he begins to inhabit their world. 

The locus of the film is the eponymous Villa Jasmin, the seaside mansion of a  Serge Senior (Arnaud Giovaninetti) and Odette Boccara (Elsa Mollien). He is from an “old” established Tunisian Jewish family, and she from a “new,” immigrant one, and though they are very much in love, much is made of the social tensions between the two groups.

The sociology of this place and time is one interesting element of the film, but it is also well worth seeing for the sensual evocations of the sounds, colors, and even smells (jasmine) of a vanished era.  The cast is extraordinarily attractive, though from time to time the performances are too low-key to seem realistic under the circumstances and the villains of the story seem little more than stereotypes. But those interested in knowing more about twentieth century North African Jewish culture and Tunisian history from the first stirring of its independence movement through the end of the Nazi occupation will learn a great deal through this captivating story of ethical tenacity, personal sacrifice, and enduring love.

Villa Jasmin will be presented at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival at 6:20 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 13, at the AMC La Jolla.

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Corona is a San Diego-based freelance writer and award winning author

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