What We Liked: Strong performances from two of the leads make empathy practically inevitable.
What We Disliked: The first storyline feels underpowered, and is virtually forgotten once it finishes.
Divided into three interconnected storylines, Three Veils depicts the effect of religious and sexual pressures on three young Muslim women living with their families in the USA. Leila (Mercedes Masöhn) has just become engaged to Ali (Sammy Sheik), to the obvious delight of her parents. But an unintentional flirtation with Jamal (Garen Boyajian) provokes a dark jealousy in her fiancé and his insistent romantic demands take a violent turn.
Jamal’s sister Amira (Angela Zahra) quietly longs for connection with Leila and her other classmates, but her oppressive mother has stunted her social skills. Chance sees her taking care of Leila’s spurned friend Nikki (Sheetal Sheth), and a hopeless attachment soon develops as Nikki’s life starts spinning out of control. Nikki’s own section traces the dark childhood roots of her issues and reveals the reasons behind her peculiar, apparently selfish actions in the previous narratives.
Three Veils‘ fairly severe split into three narratives – fades into black as a chapter break, a new voice on the soundtrack – could hardly be described as a particularly original construct. This formation has become a dramatic favourite over the past two decades. The more intimate, restrained focus here, though, gives a slightly different perspective on the careful separation and editing choices. Interactions are often not clarified until their reappearance in the second or third narrative – the three women are only together on one occasion, but their experience of those moments is strikingly different.
Writer/director Rolla Selbak effectively constructs the narrative so that the performances become more resonant and the emotions more powerful as the film progresses. Unfortunately, the character of Leila is mostly left behind after her opening section, perhaps because the harrowing climax of her story lacks much beyond basic shock factor. Filmed in the same warm, bright colours as the film around it, the story concludes with conceptual power, but the luminous Masöhn fails to imbue her character with much depth.
Zahra, however, is cast as the plainer, more pathetic figure, seems to provoke sympathy from the mere sight of her face, perpetually holding a rather mournful, melancholy expression. This fits superbly with Amira’s limpid attempts to connect with her classmates, expecting and greeting their evasive rejections with resigned loneliness. As she forges an unexpected connection with Nikki, the camera takes her side to delicately portray the silent longing of a burgeoning obsession. Similarly, when we shift to Nikki’s story, the previously buoyant Sheth is allowed to reveal a softer, more grounded side to her character, and completes the film with its most affecting tale.
Tied together, the women of Three Veils are attempting to pull back the titular obstruction – forging their own identities in the face of men and families who hold fast to outdated traditions. Selbak’s script often indulges in generic, tired conventions to schematize these conflicts. The power emerges from the familiar but sharply drawn effects of the thorny relationship between religious tradition and sexual realisation. Graciously, Selbak doesn’t draw this in plain black-and-white; Amira is fervent about the solace she takes from prayer.
Ultimately, even if the first veil is alarmingly wispy, the empathic performances from Sheth and Zahra bolster any awkward contrivances to make the majority of Three Veils a revealing tearing down of the curtain.
Three Veils was screened as part of the POUT Film Festival which took place in London 21 – 23 June 2012. Check out our further coverage of the festival. Three Veils is available to buy on DVD from Amazon UK.