Impressions from Les Silences du Palais

While Les Silences du Palais situates itself in Tunisia, the film attracts broad and international audience appeal through its various levels of analysis: gender, social class, etc… This, I believe lends it an accessibility regardless of ethnicity, class or sex. Interfamily relations, for example, figures as a theme nearly anyone can relate to. The director explores the protagonist’s relationship with her parents through several symbolic motifs, such as music and mirrors.

The multifaceted manner in which the director manipulates the motif of music and its opposite, silence, fascinates me. Through these ambiguous motifs, I think the filmmaker invites varied interpretations of both music and silence. From my reading of the film, musicality links Alia to her father, Sid Ali. It is a trait she seems to inherit from her father, whose identity is (somewhat) unknown to her. Musically talented and a lover of the art form, Sid Ali establishes himself as the more melodic parent, passing his traits down to his daughter, though not his last name. Despite its often association with the aristocratic, music also forms a part of life for the servant women. Indeed, Alia’s first flashback begins with a memory of her younger self singing happily in a circle with the other servant women of the household. Singing is a communal activity all these women participate in; meanwhile, the upper class tends to silently observe musical performances. Thus, music figures as a more divisive activity for the upper class. Men and women remain separated during these occasions, for example, and, characters reiterate numerous times that Alia is forbidden to touch (her cousin) Sarra’s lute.

Nevertheless, the lute becomes a powerful instrument for Alia, as metaphorical double-edged sword that brings her closer to her father. At an early point in the film, Alia wrests the lute from Sarra’s arms and runs away. Selim stops her and lasciviously caresses her shoulder. During this short sequence, the lute literally functions as a barrier separating Alia from her predator. Later on, after witnessing the violent rape of her mother, Alia, shocked, falls into a nearly catatonic state. Interestingly, all the servant women’s attempts to revive her fail. Even their gathering to sing cannot rouse Alia. Ultimately, it is the gift of the lute which brings her back. In one aspect, the lute raises Alia to a privileged level, almost equal to her cousin, who also has a lute. Alia develops her talents and this garners her father’s attention and praise, who requests her musical entertainment at Sarra’s engagement party. With the lecherous men in attendance, her mother perceives this as a potentially dangerous situation for her daughter. Unlike her mother, though, Alia luckily offers delights that are not her physical body. After the engagement party and tragic death of her mother, Alia exploits her musical talent as a route of escape. The adult Alia narrating mentions a career as a failed singer in nightclubs, thus, we as an audience infer that while her voice empowers her to break free from the palace, it neglects to give her a sense of fulfillment or happiness. Her songs, she mourns, are stillborn. Her father, like music, ultimately disappoints too. He dies without ever seeing or speaking to her again. A comment made by Lofti, her eventual lover, speaks to the relationship between Alia’s musical gifts and her father. “Your voice is so beautiful,” he remarks, “it is a shame it is caged up”. The beauty of her voice, like the traces of her father, seem destined to remain within her and never realized during their lifetimes.

The director also illustrates a complex relationship between Alia and her mother Khedija, which could be deciphered in different ways. Sid Ali’s death coincides with Alia’s decision to have the baby, a baby she intends to name after her mother. Until the very end of the film, Alia focuses on men (either her father or love interest Lofti) and enhancing her musical ambitions. Only at the conclusion, I believe, Alia reorients herself towards her mother, as she prepares to embrace the role herself. Throughout the rest of the film, however, the director highlights Alia’s frustration with Khedija. The daughter’s most apparent inheritance from her mother is her beauty. Various characters refer to Alia and Khedija’s resemblance and good looks. Like music, attractiveness can be a double-edged sword. Khedija’s life testifies to the dangers of beauty: her looks have (unintentionally) seduced unwanted attention. By the end of her life, Khedija rages, “I hate myself! I hate this body!” Lovely yet hazardous looks is a legacy Khedija leaves to Alia. The director exemplifies Alia’s struggle through the motif of the mirror. For example, in the midst of a fight with her mother, Alia turns to the glass and murmurs, “I always see you in my reflection,” before smashing it to pieces. Her looks thus highlight her frustration. On a journey to discover her father and earn his love, at every turn she encounters her mother. While Alia without doubt loves and cares for her mother, she yearns to leave the palace and live a life that completely contrasts to Khedija’s. Yet by the end of the film, Alia leaves her father to rest in peace and reconciles with her mother and her unborn baby.

In retrospect, I appreciate the director’s use of dense symbols, like mirrors or music, to subtly enrichen the relationships between Alia and her parents. Because so much of their relationships are silent and unspoken, these visual and audial devices convey the depth of their complex emotions. In addition, I think these symbols intensify the film’s ambiguity and potential for interpretation and broaden audience readings of the story, which is ultimately pivotal for varied viewers. Perhaps the film could have profited more by incorporating more of Tunisia’s revolutionary trajectory. Regardless, the director manages to poetically manifest the excitement of impending revolution and the subsequent disillusionment through Alia’s life story, despite the fact that she does not directly treat it. Personally, I enjoyed the film. The detailed set designs and costumes, etc… truly transport viewers to another time and place while also inviting active reflection and contemplation.