In the Catbird Seat/Joe Kirkish
Tired of the grim movies about ongoing war conflicts large and small, now and in the future? Tired of noisy action flicks that rely on special effects to carry a mundane plot. Tired of cardboard characters?
There’s something coming up at the next Club Indigo at the Calumet Theatre next week that might be something totally different – just what the doctor ordered – a Palestinian comedy: “Laila’s Birthday.”
Welcome to Ramallah, a city in perpetual chaos, under Israeli occupation and at times under fire, where explosions are a common occurrence. Funny? Well, yes, not the continuous ha-ha vulgar Hollywood fare with the humor stemming from streams of profanity and references to bodily functions. This is a light-hearted escape from the otherwise daily Middle-east unpleasantries, as Palestinian writer and director Rashid Masharawi’s reveals it nonpolitically through slightly tinted rose-colored glasses.
We follow a day in the life of an upright, middle-aged husband and father, Abu, who happens to be a court judge just returned from an unidentified country to be with his family. “At eight o’clock, it’s Laila’s birthday, okay?” the judge’s wife reminds him. Because Palestine is perpetually in a state of disarray, it has run out of money to pay his judicial wages; consequently, he is forced to earn a living driving his brother-in-law’s taxi, randomly picking up fares. This tightly-wound judge is forever taxed by his new experience, but remains politely restrained through the day’s mix of always unexpected experiences.
Refreshingly, we are spared the kinds of political arguments and social debates normally found in such Muslim/Jewish films; it’s enough that it creates a mosaic of snapshots of lives that pass through Abu’s cab as he takes us into a world we’ve occasionally read about but never experience first hand, while he tries to ignore the crazy events that play around him: a government office too busy redecorating after each new appointment to actually govern; a donkey blown into the air after a bombing; arguments about obeying the law of the road even when Abu’s passengers don’t; sirens whirring all around; or even simply hanging onto the cab. We find absurdities abounding as our hero faces his everyday misadventures. (Mohammad Bakri won an award for his remarkable portrayal of the distraught but controlled man.)
And the people! We meet young lovers who seek privacy, ask to be driven around (an hour in a taxi is all they can afford for privacy). A young man, released from prison after 11 years, accidentally leaves his cellphone on the backseat, and when Abu tries to turn it in to the police, he is subjected to humiliating bureaucratic rigmarole.
One fare is an older woman who can’t decide which of two stops to make first the hospital, where her sister is being treated for high blood pressure, or the cemetery where her husband is buried. A couple, seeing people lined up on a sidewalk, decide to join them without knowing who is currently distributing what. Men idling in a cafe debate whether the soldiers shown fighting on their TV screen are Israelis and Palestinians or Americans and Iraqis. A man in the street whom Abu narrowly avoids hitting shouts, “Please, run me over to free me from this life.” It’s a turbulent world they all live in.
And yet, through all this, there are scattered glimpses of light-heartedness. Even in the worst of times, life goes on with a constant reminder through the day – in Abu’s case, to find a birthday cake and a present for seven-year-old Laila.
After facing a nerve-wracking shift in his yellow cab, the father’s loving loyalty brings him home to a semblance of normal life amid earlier chaos, corruption, missile attacks and bursts of gunfire.
Part Chaplain-esque, part absurdist satire, the film finds surprising humor and remarkable humanity as we drive through street after street in a divided country with the fares Abu has plucked from the social free-fall of a city perpetually upended by war.
Sure, the movie creates a portrait in frustration and exasperation, yet it is never shallow or superficial; the tone is always light and affectionate – a satire that confronts serious concerns with a gentle touch, ending with a note of hope and providence – just another day in Ramallah, one that you will get to remember as an unforgettable day-long encounter with characters so real you’ll never forget them, either.
“Laila’s Birthday” will be shown next at 7:15 p.m. Oct. 11, preceded as always by a 6 p.m. buffet – a Middle Eastern feast from Kangas Cafe, Hancock.
It has been sponsored by the Jam Lady of Eagle River and ThermoAnalytics, Franklyn Township. Cost for both food and film, $19. Film alone, $5. For the buffet, call the theater by 5 p.m. on Oct. 10: 337-2610.
Note: In Finlandia’s Reflection Gallery (2nd floor, Jutila Center) there is a fascinating exhibit of “Hidden Artists of Finlandia” – there until Oct. 31.
Rotten Tomatoes averages: “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2,” C+; “Insidious Chapter 2,” D+