Located on the coast of a rocky peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean Sea, Melilla, an autonomous Spanish port city in North Africa, is home to Christians, Muslims and Jews. The enclave’s 12 square kilometers are a mix of coexistence and tension that is only heightened by the fence that separates it from Morocco.
For the new feature film, “Alegría,” isolated Melilla is the ideal venue for navigating some complex family history.
Directed by Spanish filmmaker Violeta Salama, “Alegría” is screening on January 22 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, where Salama will host a live Q&A session.
The film focuses on its protagonist, Alegría, who is portrayed by Mexican actress Cecilia Suárez. Although Alegría is of Jewish descent, she is reluctant to embrace her heritage, in contrast to the next generation of her family, including her niece Yael (Laia Manzanares), who comes to Melilla to have an Orthodox wedding. When Alegría hosts Yael for the upcoming celebration, the issue of identity becomes inescapable.
Initially screened in Spain, the film has received an enthusiastic response abroad, including at festivals in Israel and the United States.
Salama drew upon her own background to make it: The daughter of a Sephardic Jewish father and a Catholic mother, she grew up in Melilla and lived there for 12 years. The film shows sweeping shots of the director’s hometown — its seascapes and palm trees with the mountains of Morocco beyond, along with the call of the muezzin and the cry of the seagulls.
“Alegría [the character] is my father and my grandmother all mixed together,” Salama told The Times of Israel. Meanwhile, the director said, Yael exemplifies “the way of being Jewish in your own way.” She embodies those who “try to move around, travel, know different cultures, decide how you want to live your life.”
That’s what Salama herself has tried to do. She describes her father as coming from a traditional Sephardic background and her mother from a military family, noting that there has long been a military presence in Melilla — it was where the first shots of the Spanish Civil War were fired.
Growing up, Salama was one of only a handful of Muslim and Jewish children who did not attend Catholic religious school.
And while she was unsure about her identity, she was quite certain of her career path. She received a master’s degree in creative documentary from the Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona and then, in 2007, went across the globe to the Vancouver Film School. When she wasn’t working on shows such as “Smallville” in Canada, she was meeting other people with complex identities.
“It was the first time I met Jewish people like me,” she said — which she defines as “Jewish in your own way.”
She further explored her identity by journeying to Israel with her grandmother and meeting other family members there.
“I started to connect a lot of dots,” Salama said. “For me, it was fascinating. I wanted to imagine more about it.”
What began as a film project about her family transformed into a different kind of narrative — set not in Israel but in Melilla. Its theme would be similar, though — finding oneself.
For the character Alegría, it’s quite a journey.
When the film begins, Alegría, a doctor, has returned to her hometown of Melilla. She seems ready to meet any challenge in her way, whether treating an injured North African refugee boy or working with her Muslim housekeeper, Dunia (Sarah Perles), to get her home ready for Yael.
Yet tensions arrive even before Yael does. We learn that Alegría is estranged from her Jewish roots — as well as from her daughter Sara. Born from a relationship in Mexico that further alienated Alegría from her family, Sara has embraced her Judaism and lives in Israel.
Alegría tweaks the customs of observant Jewish family members visiting for the wedding. She installs a mezuzah on her doorpost for them, but delights in gluing it to the surface, in defiance of a technicality in the Jewish law. As for Israel, she calls it the one country she will never visit.
As the film progresses, there are hints, however, that Alegría is less dismissive of her Jewish heritage than she seems. She has a complicated history with Simón, one of Melilla’s rabbis, as shown in a scene in what Salama considers the most beautiful of the city synagogues. Simón is played by veteran Argentine actor Leonardo Sbaraglia.
“He is a very famous actor in the Latin world,” Salama said. “It was just an honor for him to want to play that character.”
The director describes Alegría’s backstory with Simón as follows: “If she had been less stubborn with the religion, maybe she would have admitted the person behind the veil. She denied her Judaism when she was a teenager. She missed a lot of things. She missed [seeing] Simón as a person.”
In the present, Salama said, Alegría “does not want a family, but needs it at the same time.” She explains the main character’s view of her brother, Yael’s father: “’I do not want to be judged by you, but I need you to approve of me’… Family always brings your contradictions out. I wanted that to happen with the brother. She has this mask of strength, she cannot be hurt at all. Her brother is the one who has the power, who knows she is vulnerable.”
If there is to be a reconciliation between Alegría and her family — or between Alegría and her Judaism — it must come through acceptance that life gets complicated. And throughout the film, there are hints that Alegría is less willing to construct barriers than she is to overcome them.
For example, she sympathizes with the situation of Melilla’s Muslims. Many come from the indigenous Amazigh people of Morocco (commonly known as Berbers, though many don’t prefer this nomenclature) and are represented in the film by Dunia. According to Salama, Muslims in Melilla generally consider themselves Spanish, yet this is not reciprocated among the exclave’s Christian population, leading to feelings of alienation.
In the film, Alegría encourages Dunia and Yael to get to know each other. When Yael expresses a desire for a “Berber night” — a Sephardic version of a bachelorette party — Alegría finds a way to make it work. The gathering takes place in a poignant scene at Dunia’s family home in Morocco, hosted by her grandmother. (The grandmother was played by the actual grandmother of one of Salama’s Amazigh friends in Melilla.) In this scene, there’s a retelling of the story of La Kahina, a historical Amazigh heroine who navigated among the Maghreb’s Jews, Muslims and Christians. A song from the terrific soundtrack references La Kahina, with lyrics in Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic.
“I’ve always loved the song,” Salama said. “I tried to make it with the three languages, more powerful.”
Alegría’s willingness to break down barriers for others presages her coming to terms with the barriers in her own life, some of them self-constructed. Even if she can’t quite answer the question of whether or not she is Jewish, she’s on the way to feeling more comfortable in the complexities.
“I don’t like characters that have everything understood from the beginning,” Salama said. “People need to have contradictions.”
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