Sunday is Oscar night–and when Hollywood’s elite gather February 28 in the Dolby Theater at Hollywood & Highland Center, who will they crown as best of the best? Oscar contenders include the usual box office stars: Leonardo DiCaprio for his role in “The Revenant”; Matt Damon for “The Martian”; Cate Blanchett or Jennifer Garner for “Best Actress in a Leading Role.”
But while America’s attention will focus as usual on the top box office draws, there’s a 14-minute religious comedy in the “Short Film (Live Action)” category that deserves a nod. Sometimes a film doesn’t need to be created by the biggest names in Hollywood to be nominated for an award as prestigious as an Oscar. Sometimes all you need is a cast, a crew and maybe even access to a DCP guide to get started, and before you know it, your film could be showcased on the world’s biggest stage.
“Ave Maria” tells the story of five Palestinian Carmelite nuns in a desolate desert monastery, living a life of silence and prayer. The sisters’ quiet life in the West Bank is interrupted when a Jewish family seeking refuge crashes their car into the convent wall. The settlers need assistance–but they get off to a bad start when they inadvertently lop the head off of the convent’s Marian statue. The sisters’ vow of silence makes it difficult for them to help; and Jewish law prevents the Israelis from dialing a telephone on the Sabbath.
There’s a sense in which the conflict between Netanyahu and Hamas is played out in small scale. Together, the Catholic sisters and the Jewish settlers must come up with an unorthodox plan to help the Israeli family get home.
I haven’t seen the film in its entirety, but it appears that British-Palestinian filmmaker Basil Khalil had a little fun with the situation, without demeaning either the Catholic or Jewish faith. Stephen Holden, writing in the New York Times, noted:
Communication is next to impossible. The comedy, which suggests a Middle Eastern answer to “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is a lacerating farcical satire of religious extremism.
E. Nina Rothe at the Huffington Post found it endearing. She interviewed director Khalil, who explained the irony: The cloistered sisters, Khalil said,
“…don’t talk, only for one hour a day, and each year they vote for one nun to do their shopping, the only one who can exit the building. That struck my imagination, what do they do behind closed doors, what do they talk about when they can talk, what are these rules that they chose, to stay silent? And on the other hand you have the Israelis who are loud, squabbling with each other and they have their rules of Sabbath. And the rules are conflicting. They help each other not because they’ve become friends but because they can’t stand each other. And the only way they can get rid of each other is by helping the other. The nuns want to go back to their silence and the Israelis to their Kosher home.
Jennie Kermode, reviewer at the British website Eye for Film, said,
Pitting ancient rules and modern necessities against each other at the same time as it plays out its contemporary culture clash comedy, Ave Maria never ridicules the various religious traditions it references but gently makes sport of the hypocrisy around them. It’s full of religious stereotypes but they’re affectionately delivered in a way that invites members of those groups to laugh along. It’s also easy for anyone, regardless of background, to sympathise with the frustration of the stranded family and with the limited patience the nuns are able to exercise in pursuit of their merciful vocation.
“Ave Maria” premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and the independent film now commands the attention of Hollywood. Here’s wishing it well!