Cannes 2022

Mediterranean Fever review – personal and political collide in an uneven suicide story

Blending drama and comedy to mixed effect, Maha Haj explores the Israeli-Palestine conflict through the story of one man's depression

“What a fine day! Can't choose whether to drink tea or to hang myself.” Anton Chekov’s pithy, oft-shared quote about suicide acts as an epigraph to Maha Haj’s Mediterannean Fever, a film that subtly weaves the Israeli–Palestinian conflict into a tale about one man’s depression. Encompassing elements of drama, crime and comedy, Haj makes the impassioned argument that politics can have a real and brutal impact on both the individual and the collective psyche.

We are introduced to forty-something Waleed (Amer Hlehel), a writer who hasn't written anything in quite some time. As a Palestinian residing in Haifa, Israel with his wife and two children, he has internalized the sense of hopelessness and imprisonment of the ongoing conflict around him. Subtle digs abound in his daily life – he’ll ask a question in Arabic, and receive an answer in Hebrew – and he explodes with anger when asked loaded questions about his religion by a white doctor. Even two years of therapy haven’t worked: with despondent calm, he tells his psychologist that he is wasting his money and leaves his sessions feeling worse.

While his life is idyllic on a surface level, with a loving family who sit around eating Shish Barak and arguing over screen time, Waleed’s crushing depression sees him despondently watching the news, barely stirred anymore by the recurrent newsreels of rubble-strewn buildings. The only thing stopping him from committing suicide is his children: he longs to die without them knowing about his mental health issues. Enter Jalal (Ashraf Farah), a low-level criminal who moves into Waleed’s building, presenting a new opportunity for a way out – if only he can earn the man’s candour and trust.

Dedicating this work to assassinated Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh at the film’s premiere, Maha Haj’s anger at her country’s ongoing conflict is reflected throughout the story, even if it only plays out in the plot’s margins. Shrouded in gloomy autumn weather, Haj shot the film in the neglected, poorer districts of Haifa, a city in which a third of the population are Palestinian (the film itself is a co-production between Palestine, Germany, France, Cyprus and Qatar; the director has made a point of rejecting money from the Israeli Film Fund).

The title of the film is perhaps a MacGuffin – an early scene tells us that Waleed’s son has been experiencing regular stomach ailments, which a doctor suggests may be down to Mediterranean fever. Fittingly, this is a genetic illness connected to place, mainly affecting those of Jewish, Armenian, Arab, Turkish, Greek, Italian and Cypriot origin. It’s an apt metaphor for a film that aims to connect a type of specific suffering rooted to a place and a culture and manifest it within an individual.

Haj succeeds in exploring how a life dedicated to activism – whether that’s through small gestures, art, active protest or otherwise – can be life-affirming in the face of helplessness. But perhaps where Mediterranean Fever falters is in its inability to really get into the meat of Waleed’s psyche and the way the Israeli occupation affects Palestinians on a granular level. The buddy comedy that develops between Waleed and Jalal brings a certain levity, but doesn’t quite earn enough laughs for the film to truly be given the status of a black comedy. Dissatisfying, too, is the storytelling on a purely cinematic level, with the framing and visuals feeling largely uninspiring.

Despite a strange plot twist that seems to upend all the work put in leading up to it, Mediterranean Fever succeeds in engendering a specific feeling of woe and despair rooted within a collective struggle. The “if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’” ending may feel a little glib, but as many artists who have suffered from depression often say, sometimes all we can do is laugh in the face of misfortune.

Mediterranean Fever was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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