A young woman returns to her birth place a palace, now a shadow of its former glory. Ali's mother is the palace concubine and Ali finds herself being groomed to take over the role.
Set in a lingering otherworldly Tunisia, this is a film about bondage and betrayal, art and freedom and the love which persists between mothers and daughters. Constructed as a series of long, involved flashbacks, it tracks the return of a young woman, Alia (Lacroix), to the palace where she was born and, in a dreamlike time structure, contrasts memories of its former splendour with the reality of its current, sad dilapidation.
In the present, Alia makes a desultory living as a night-club singer while living with a man who refuses to marry her. Then she hears that the prince of the palace, Sidi Ali, has died and returns to pay her respects. The bulk of the film is then taken up with her laying to rest the ghosts of her past. The young Alia (Hend Sabri) is shown poised between hordes of female servants and the leisured aristos whose wants they tend to. Her mother is the palace concubine and it seems Alia is being groomed to take her place before her sudden departure. The film only hints at the reasons for her absence. The closeted rituals of the palace are built on silence and repression and director Tlatli expertly ties this in with the larger political situation by framing scenes against the din of constant emergency radio broadcasts.
In the final strokes, Alia does discover an identity for herself, but the overall implication is one of tragedy. It's a poignant fading note to the film's dense and complex overture in a mysterious time and place which, for all its unevenness, offers considerable rewards.
Complex film but the good outways the bad.