Cannes 2022 Review: Sunlight Gives Way to a Gathering Storm in Erige Sehiri’s Iridescent “Under the Fig Trees”

“This orchard is difficult to watch over,” Ghaith (Ghaith Mendassi) is told on his way onto the acreage he’s leased in “Under the Fig Trees” by a security guard who implores him to hire another. There are already too many employees to manage for his tastes, as he loads in a full freight of day laborers to pick figs for him every morning, and yet too few, adding to the general feeling of anxiety in the fields where no one feels appreciated for their work. Still, love comes up again and again in Erige Sehiri’s enchanting debut, a romantic roundelay on par with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that takes place in the starker light of day of modern-day Tunisia where jealousy and miscommunications may get in the way of connection, but other issues of social standing become just as prominent.

Leila (Leila Ohebi), one of the older women who hops on the flatbed of Ghaith’s pick-up at the start of the day, is teased for her eagerness, but she leaves behind others who clearly wish they had acted as fast, an appropriate start for the lighthearted drama in which someone is always made to feel like an outsider trying to work their way in. Melek (Feten Fdhili), one of the youngest women in the group, feels like that even when she’s invited into the passenger seat of Ghaith’s truck, concerned what the others will think when it appears as if she’s getting preferred status from the boss, and while Ghaith runs a relatively loose operation — you wouldn’t think he’s anything more than a driver until he gets to the fields – he imposes his authority casually, knowing at the end of the day he’s in charge of passing out dinars.

That prevailing knowledge is what gives “Under the Fig Trees” its narrative torque even as its ensemble, mostly comprised of women, fans out as workers in the fields, when some like Leila, spending her life accepting a certain hierarchy, are consulted by Ghaith to weed out suspected thieves while others like the headstrong Fide (Fide Fdhili) likely see their wages as a small step towards personal freedom. It’s why the latter becomes a bemused observer to all the potential couplings happening around her as her 17-year-old sister Melek is smitten with Abdou (Abdelhak Mrabti), who is helping out his uncle for the summer, and Sana (Ameni Fdhili), who has been in a relationship with her co-worker Firas (Firas Amri), though his frequent steps away from work suggest he has a wandering eye. Sehiri is able to speak to what’s happening outside this idyllic orchard by stirring up chaos within as an older generation of women led by Leila hold no romantic illusions about what’s in store for these younger women, whether their idealism runs towards finding a perfect partner for themselves or being independent.

Touches as subtle as how one wears their hijab says volumes about the characters, but Sehiri is careful to avoid any didacticism as engaging discussions commence about the expectations of marriage and the differences between the villages the women were raised in and Monastir, the popular port city where Abou’s ability to speak from experience gives him a certain authority in spite of being one of the youngest people on the orchard that he honestly doesn’t know how to handle. The natural flow of conversation is complimented well by Frida Marzouk’s fluid, sun-dappled camerawork where people’s exchanges with one another, whether passing tools to each other from treetops or shooting each other looks on the ground is glorious and “Under the Fig Trees” has the clarity to see the strengths and weaknesses across the uneven land, with wisdom emerging as the juiciest fruit of all this labor.

“Under the Fig Trees” will screen again in Directors Fortnight on May 22nd at 11:30 am at Cinema Les Arcades/Salle 1, Cinema Le Raimu at 4:30 pm and Cinema Alexandre III at 7 pm.