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Under the Fig Trees

Faces and fruits flourish in the resplendent Tunisian ensemble piece “Under the Fig Trees,” from French-born director Erige Sehiri, which maps the interpersonal relationships, mostly romantic ones, among the men and women informally hired to harvest figs by hand over the course of a single workday. Located a short ride from a small town, where everyone knows what goes on in their neighbors’ lives and forms unrequited opinions about them, the orchard, like any other workplace, bears witness to both conflict and camaraderie. 

Ranging in age and skillfulness, the underpaid and overworked group labors with strict instructions to carefully handle the branches—breaking one is a cardinal offense—and to avoid picking unripe figs or crushing them during sorting. Their young, but no less exploitative boss Saber (Fedi Ben Achour) supervises with punishing, hawk-like ferocity. 

Tight on their sun-drenched visages, some more markedly weathered than others, the camera assumes the role of a stealthy accomplice to innocuous acts of “time theft,” where the fruit-picking would-be lovers casually converse, often with flirtatious undertones, and reveal details about their previous entanglements or discuss plans for their amorous futures. Nimble cinematographer Frida Marzouk follows them from tree to tree, the greenery around them is perpetually present in the frame, collecting their changing expressions, their intimate banter and subtle body language always up close. 

To fit her ideal of how a marriage should function, Sana (Ameni Fdhili), an assertive young woman, wishes for love interest Firas (Firas Amri), a bearded and burly young man with sad eyes, to abandon his gentle nature and adopt a more conservative masculine role. Meanwhile, Fidé (Fide Fdhili), the most strong-willed member of the crop of young laborers, fights back against the gossip that wishes to portray her as an amoral, sexually deviant entity. Arguments may arise between the girls, but when a common enemy threatens their safety, Fidé knows to put the bickering aside for the common good. 

Not despite, but because of its simple setting, where the constant physical activity and intermittent breaks provide a dynamic backdrop for each of these characters to bloom dramatically, Sehiri accomplishes a delicate storytelling feat with “Under the Fig Trees.” Each exchange opens a new window into their individual yearnings and apprehensions beyond their need to sell their bodily prowess for cash. Far from a movie about people arduously toiling away, it’s an intricate microcosm where one can see gender and social dynamics at play, particularly in their capacity to shape how we love and befriend others. 

That former boyfriend and girlfriend Abdou (Abdelhak Mrabti) and Melek (Feten Fdhili), neither of whom looks older than 17, speak about their younger years together as if they were a middle-aged couple reminiscing on their glory days reveals the accelerated maturity expected for adolescents around these parts. Abdou has only just returned after five years away, and Melek wonders if he still feels the same way about her. There’s an innocence to their timid coquettishness even if they talk about their childhood romance like an unforgettably torrid affair. The consistency of the performances by the cast of first timers, all operating with unshowy nuance even in dialogue-heavy roles, is utterly astounding. 

Throughout, Sehiri concentrates on the varying experiences of all the women in her story. In charge of less physically demanding tasks like sorting and packing the figs, the elderly ladies in this minuscule but mighty team are not amused by their younger counterparts dating on the job. Exhausted in body and soul, Leila (Leila Ouhebi) shares the sorrow of unfulfilled passion as part of a generation not allowed to pick their marital partner freely. 

But the director does make room for a moment of macho vulnerability (bro-nerability?) between Saber and Firas where the former speaks of his womanizing adventures in the city and encourages his employee to indulge. From all fronts Firas is urged to change, to adopt more stereotypically manly behaviors. Sehiri and co-writers Ghalya Lacroix and Peggy Hamann hammer this point when an angry Fidé spouts an insulting generalization about the rural men and is confronted by an elderly farmer who took personal offense. 

Though Sehiri’s third feature offers a seemingly minor concept, it’s certainly bountiful in its power to unearth the unspoken codes that reign over this community, where some men demand reverence from women solely for their gender-based status in the social hierarchy, where the notion of absolute loyalty to one’s extended family guides every decision, and where romantic companionship remains mostly transactional. Yet things are changing, or so Sehiri suggest in exuberant shots of the young women, hair to the wind, singing and dancing with abandon, as their contemporary men join them instead of judging them. 

Carlos Aguilar

Originally from Mexico City, Carlos Aguilar was chosen as one of 6 young film critics to partake in the first Roger Ebert Fellowship organized by RogerEbert.com, the Sundance Institute and Indiewire in 2014. 

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Under the Fig Trees movie poster

Under the Fig Trees (2024)

92 minutes

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