13 June 2024

BFI Flare 2023 Review – Polarized (2023)

The collision of worlds – physical, cultural and everything in between – and the resulting fallout is a perennial favourite for filmmakers and storytellers in its widest sense. And no wonder. The permutations are endless, as Shamim Sarif’s demonstrates in Polarized, her low key examination of two women who go against their families, background and religion by falling in love.

Lisa (Holly Deveaux) is an aspiring singer from a farming family but, when the bank forecloses on their house and land, she takes a job with a local company. It’s a shiny new “vertical farm”, run by a Palestinian family. Her first encounter with Dalia (Maxine Denis), who runs the business, is prickly: racism bubbles to the surface and Lisa is sacked but, desperately needing the job, she returns to apologise and is re-instated. The two start to find common ground and there’s an obvious attraction, but both resist – Dalia because of her impending marriage, Lisa because of convention – and, when things do escalate, they call a halt. Dalia gets married, but neither can deny what’s really happening and when the truth – something both families have suspected – comes out, reactions are dramatic. The two women, now essentially outcasts,  have to decide what kind of future they want.

The clashes come at just about every level: sexual, religious, cultural, economic, racial and, although it’s never mentioned by name, political. The small, farming belt town where the story is set, has a Palestinian community of its own, one that’s viewed with suspicion by many of the locals but which has thrived through hard work and tries to be an integral part of the community – as much as the town will allow, anyway. The irony, one they rarely see, is that they share numerous similarities. Both Lisa and Dalia’s families have lost their land: for Lisa, the bank has put the family farm on the market, while Dalia’s family emigrated from Palestine after their crops withered and died. And the families’ attitudes to the relationship between the two women are almost identical, even though they would never admit it. Religious traditions drive their response – Dalia’s family is Muslim, Lisa’s follows a fundamentalist branch of Christianity. Both refuse to accept the relationship and drive the pair away.

Subdued, modest even, in tone and evenly paced, there are times when you sense the film has taken that approach to give one or two critical scenes more impact. The most shocking one comes out of the blue in the town’s church, when Lisa is subjected to an “intervention” designed to stamp out her feelings for Dalia. It’s been evident all along that the preacher leads a congregation with strongly traditionalist views, but extremism on this level seemingly comes from nowhere, to the extent that it jars and comes close to feeling out of place. Deveaux and Denis both give strong performances and there’s no doubt that, against the odds, they’ll find their way through. It doesn’t come as a surprise, but nor does the majority of the film.

★★ 1/2

Drama | Screened at BFI Flare on 18, 19 and 26 March 2023 | Certificate: tbc | Dir: Shamim Sarif | Holly Deveaux, Maxine Denis, Hesham Hammoud, Darren Martens, Abraham Asto.

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