The religious and cultural fault lines of the Middle East get thoroughly blurred in “May in the Summer,” the second feature film from the Palestinian-American actress-writer-director Cherian Dabis (“Amreeka”).
The setting and various religious rifts are unfamiliar, if the domestic/romantic melodrama isn’t.
May and her sisters rendezvous at the airport, three expats returned to the desert land of their birth. The absence of soldiers and Orthodox Jews tells you this isn’t Israel. It’s Amman, Jordan.
May (Dabis), a vivacious Palestinian New Yorker, is returning to marry her Islamic scholar fiance. The bubbly, big-mouthed party girl Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) and marriage-averse Tomboy Dalia (Alia Shawkat of “Arrested Development”) have taken a month off to fly here and help her prepare.
Because Mom (Hiam Abbass, “The Visitor”) does not approve. Jordan is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East, and present day Mom is a born again Christian. She is vehemently opposed to this marriage. She’s not overtly ugly and unpleasant about it, but she refuses to go to the wedding, and she indulges in a curious folk superstition, a “Knowledge Rope.” Untie its knots, and an ill-suited couple can be broken up.
“Marrying outside your religion…never works,” she mutters. She should know. She’s divorced. Mom is “married to God,” now.
“Another lousy husband who’s never around,” May cracks.
May is worried about the wedding, having argued with her intended before getting on the plane. She’s troubled by her mother, refuses to see her father, and everywhere around her she’s reminded of the reasons she’s glad she left. Jogging, she earns the leering attention of every creep within eyeshot. Her sisters, well ONE of her sisters, takes an interest in the local men.
“Does he live with his parents?”
“They ALL do here!”
May’s future in-laws seem OK, but at every turn, she stumbles into rigid folks, centuries into their dogmatism.
And every so often, military jets interrupt a conversation, reminding one of the tensions of the region.
Dabis, a striking woman with a seriously sexy screen presence, is our tour guide through a land of stark desert mountainscapes (May befriends an “adventure travel” tour guide), Dead Sea resorts and nightclubs, a secular country in a part of the world where that’s rare. The women go out on their own, drink too much, bicker in private and in public and plan a wedding (caterers, dress fittings) just the way they would here in the U.S.
But the behind-the-camera Dabis never lets us forget the “otherness” of it all. The sisters giggle at Muslim women encased in their black Hijab head-coverings.
May is the author of a book divining the folk wisdom of Palestinian proverbs, which break the film into chapters — sort of.
“Love is an endless act of forgiveness.” “There is no pillow so soft as a clear conscious.”
So the tone is light and comic, even when things take more melodramatic turns in the third act (Bill Pullman is her estranged dad).
Dabis requires an awful lot from the audience, perhaps too much. One of the running gags here is how confusing it can be for outsiders to see why the region is in turmoil. Three lovely and distinctly Semitic women kvetching about finding themselves, finding the right man, bickering over “our petty problems..DJ or band?” Switch the language from Arabic to Hebrew and this is an Israeli culture clash comedy, or Jewish American variation on a “Bridesmaids” theme.
Miss the fact that they’ve landed in Amman (it’s easy), and you’d swear this was Israel or Lebanon.
“May in the Summer” doesn’t have the heart of “Amreeka,” which plopped Palestinians in small-town Middle America. But Dabis takes these archetypal characters and finds just enough funny, fish-out-of-water things for them to do in this unusual setting, even if she’s determined not to spell out exactly where that setting is and what its religious history might be.
MPAA Rating: R for some language
Cast: Cherien Dabis, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, Nadine Malouf, Bill Pullman
Credits: Written and directed by Cherien Dabis. A Cohen Media Group release.
Running time: 1:39
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