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LFF 2023: The Bride Is a Sensitive Study in Pain

Image Courtesy of BFI London Film Festival

Making films about genocide, or any such national trauma, is a complicated proposition as it leads one into thorny issues around depicting such violence, and finding graceful means to convey the impact of living through such experiences. Films about sexual assault, are hard going for similar reasons. People shrink from crass and distressing onscreen depictions, but anything less that a realistic portrayal would be disingenuous. These questions of how does one preserve the dignity of the victims while still confronting the facts of what happened are ones that Myriam Birara’s film The Bride finds deceptively simple and elegant answers to. A selection of the 2023 BFI London Film Festival, The Bride is not a film about the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, nor is it a film about kidnapping, forced marriage or martial rape. It is a film about its characters. 

Eva (Sanda Umulisa) is an intelligent, charming and playful young woman whose carefree existence and ambitions to go to university and become a doctor are shattered when she is suddenly assaulted and, “moral” standards being what they are in her community, she is forced to marry her attacker to preserve her honor when she is found to have been left pregnant. Eva rails against the decision but she is given no say in the matter. She says she wants to be a doctor: they tell her she can be a teacher instead; they’re in short supply because most of them were killed in the previous year’s massacres. She says it hurts when her new fiancé Silas (Daniel Gaga) forces himself on her: they give her some stretching exercises to do so it won’t be as painful next time. Eva’s whole world has been turned upside down. In an instant she has lost everything. 

It sounds like the bleakest movie ever and yes, the upsetting subject matter is an integral part of the story. But The Bride does not press the point too strongly, it leaves much to the imagination, and what it does show says a lot. It doesn’t wholly shy from representing sexual violence onscreen, but exhibits only the more intimate, insidious forms it takes. It could never, ever be accused of turning sexual violence into spectacle or exploiting it for shock value. The Bride‘s focus is not on Eva’s suffering but on how she responds to what happens to her, what she judges her obligations to be and how she preserves her self worth throughout it. 

Nor is Eva alone in her circumstances, finding an unlikely compassionate ally in the form of her new captor’s cousin (Aline Amike), with whom she forms a restorative, loving friendship, bonding over their shared confinement and the empathy they feel for one another in their suffering, but also over more innocent and wholesome things like the songs they each learned as children. Their relationship is impressively nuanced and complex for a film that runs only an hour and fifteen very ruminative minutes and which packs much else into that time. There’s a sweetness and genuineness to their friendship that complicates Eva’s circumstances, and further confusing the issue is the possibility that her friendship may be more than merely reciprocated in kind, leading to what is, in its low-key way, the film’s most heartbreaking scene, where Eva’s soon-to-be cousin-in-law crosses an invisible line with her. So endearing is their chemistry, it takes both us and them a moment to realize she’s crossing a boundary.

Even Silas, quite patently an odious, repellent human being, is afforded a judicious modicum of respect and sympathy. He is, in his own deeply messed up and abusive way, trying to rebuild the family that he so brutally lost. He is monstrous in that he feels entitled to her body, her life, even her love, but he is deeply human in that his motive is rooted in restoring his family and his self-worth, honoring the memory of his murdered parents and siblings. He just doesn’t think about how Eva might feel about devoting her entire existence to incubating the dreams of a stranger who doesn’t respect her. As Eva says, “can you spend your life with someone purely because you pity them”? Subconsciously, she could be referring to either Silas or his unnamed cousin.

These complex and ambivalent character portraits are built upon a trio of superb performances. As Eva, Umulisa does not retreat into a portrait of victimhood for a moment. She’s imprisoned as much by her intelligence as by the society around her, she’s too keenly aware of the unintended consequences, for herself and others, of breaking out of the role being assigned to her. Umulisa does an exceptional job demonstrating the difference between worldliness and intelligence. Eva’s still very much a child, yet she burns with a stifled desire for knowledge, achievement and self-discovery. Silas’s cousin however, just needs to be loved. The Bride is a film about two women with very different natures, one inured to never having the chance to live freely, the other still enraged and wounded by the prospect. As Silas’s cousin says, it’s when they stop crying that you know a person has truly suffered. 

Such a gracefully judged film is heartening to see, and especially impressive given that it’s Birara’s feature debut. The more I think of it, the more apt a point of comparison I find The Color Purple to be. Besides the rural domestic setting and cast of young black women, The Bride works similarly, using the redemptive power of friendship and feminine solidarity as an antidote to the maddening injustices of patriarchy and the raw wounds of a grief that most of us are lucky enough not to be able to even imagine. 

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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