Review: ‘In Between’ Tells of Three Women Fighting Patriarchy in Tel Aviv

Posted January 4, 2018 9:36 p.m. EST

“In Between,” Maysaloun Hamoud’s film about three Palestinian women sharing an apartment in Tel Aviv, Israel, is fatalistic about the local political situation, pessimistic about men and encouraged by the power of female solidarity. In other words, whether by serendipity or prophetic insight or some combination of the two, it’s a perfect movie for the moment.

Laila (Mouna Hawa), a lawyer, and Salma (Sana Jammelieh), a DJ who supports herself with restaurant work, spend their free time doing what their counterparts in Berlin, New York and other big cosmopolitan cities do — going to clubs, getting high, drinking and canoodling in a large and shifting crowd of friends. When their roommate leaves the nest to marry, she arranges for her cousin Nur (Shaden Kanboura) to take her place. Nur, who is studying computer science, is an observant Muslim who tries, as politely as she can, to disguise her disapproval of Laila and Salma’s hedonistic lifestyle. Nur’s fiancé, Wissam (Henry Andrawes), is more blunt, worrying about the state of her soul and trying to arrange for her to move somewhere else.

For a while, Hamoud plays the small-scale culture-war skirmishes between Nur and the others for comedy, partly because humor is Laila and Salma’s readiest defense when moments of conflict or discomfort arise. But slowly the picture darkens, and you begin to understand that the independence these women enjoy comes at a serious price, that their free-spiritedness results from a principled, implicitly political commitment to their own autonomy.

The plots and subplots of this busy film coalesce around the single, multifarious problem of patriarchal authority, which each of the three main characters confronts in a different guise. Wissam, who at first seems like a humorless but basically well-meaning guy, turns out to be something much worse. But “In Between” doesn’t suppose that only pious, Muslim men mistreat the women in their lives. Salma, who is gay, faces the brutal intolerance of her Christian family, while Laila finds that her dreamy, artistic, well-traveled boyfriend, Ziad (Mahmoud Shalaby), is not as open-minded as he seemed.

In retrospect, the three-stranded story “In Between” braids together might look a bit tidy and schematic, but it makes its points with an impressive mixture of clarity and nuance. The central performances are all terrific. Hawa, tall and glamorous, with regal bearing and a cloud of curls, has an effortlessly commanding presence, and for a while Jammelieh and Kanboura dwell in the shadow of her charisma. But each asserts herself in a different way: Jammelieh by finding the well of emotion behind Salma’s cool, cynical facade and Kanboura by locating both Nur’s toughness and her half-hidden sense of fun.

“In Between,” Hamoud’s debut feature, is an unusually welcoming and engaging film, inviting you to become a part of the circle of friends it depicts with such energy and warmth. For that reason, it can also be frustrating. So much is packed into two hours — so many big and small emotions, events and issues, so many potentially interesting people — that you may find yourself wanting both more and less.

It’s hard not to wish that instead of a single feature film, Hamoud had made a television season about Laila, Salma and Nur, so that the audience’s curiosity about them could have been fully satisfied and just so we could hang out with them more regularly. We barely meet Nur’s father, Salma’s girlfriend or the Jewish colleague Laila flirts with on smoke breaks. All of them seem worth knowing better. The glimpses of Tel Aviv at work and play (and of Nazareth, Salma’s hometown) are tantalizing. The party is over too soon!

Which is not really a serious criticism, and is part of the point “In Between” is making. The movie ends right at the moment when it seems as if a potentially bigger story — about what happens after the awakening and reckoning, after the mutual recognition of #MeToo — could finally begin.

Production notes: “In Between (Bar Bahar)” is not rated. In Hebrew and Arabic, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes.