Tunisian-born, Paris-based Nacer Khemir knows how to embrace dichotomies. A poet and sculptor immersed in French art and literary circles, he's also a tenacious filmmaker who has taken two decades to complete his desert trilogy, Wanderers of the Desert (1984), The Dove's Lost Necklace (1990), and now Bab'Aziz (The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul), a lyrical folk tale infused with Sufi mysticism told by modern nomads.
The landscape of Bab'Aziz is at once tangible and ethereal, waves of sand shifting in the wind. The first time we see Bab'Aziz (Parviz Shahinkhou) and his granddaughter Ishtar (Maryam Hamid), they're digging out after a sandstorm, trying to get a new sense of direction amid the suddenly altered terrain. Bab'Aziz may be blind and frail, but he's determined to make an arduous trek across the desert to join a rare gathering of dervishes.
Precocious and protective, Ishtar wonders how they'll find the others without knowing the way, and she's not comforted by her grandfather's abstract replies. To placate her, Bab'Aziz begins recalling the fable of a long-ago Prince (Kaveh Khodashenas), whose existential crisis forced him to see his soul anew. It's the first of a series of interwoven tales that fuse the ancient and modern, with Khemir employing the medieval Sufi poetry and philosophy of Rumi, Attar, Ibn Arabi and Ibn Fari to guide his contemporary characters.
It's Khemir's way of presenting a different vision of Islam to the post-9/11 world, and his gentle film makes a powerful point. He does it without falling into didacticism; there's a dreamy, elliptical quality to the storytelling that's heightened by Mahmoud Kalari's stunning cinematography of the desert landscapes of Tunisia and Iran, and Armand Amar's haunting and ethereal score, which uses traditional Arabic music as its base note.
The people Bab'Aziz and Ishtar encounter are all lost, literally and figuratively. As they recall their tales of vengeance, betrayal and lost love, they express longing for a world beyond what they've known. In the filmmaker's eyes, that makes them akin to the dervish, who chooses exile to pursue what Khemir deems an "endless quest for the absolute and the infinite."
Heady stuff, but it's anchored in the relationship between a smart girl and her wise grandfather. Their journey serves as Ishtar's introduction to devotion as a way of life, a gift that may prove more valuable than any family heirloom her beloved Bab'Aziz can leave behind.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.