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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Laila's Birthday (film review)

As another dawn arrives on the West Bank, Mr. Abu Laila tenderly checks on his sleeping child; his wife awakens; they all prepare for another day. They make their plans: on his way to work driving a cab, Mr. Laila will drop the little girl off at school; his wife will pick her up on her way back home from her day at work; he promises he will be home by 8:00 to celebrate Laila's seventh birthday. It is clear that this event is the rock upon which he must build his day: Laila's birthday. A photo of Laila is on the dashboard of the cab, a touchstone to which Mr. Laila frequently returns throughout his day.

As the titles roll, a number of countries flash by: the 2008 film was made in the Netherlands, Tunisia, Palestine. But one of this film's most remarkable characteristics is its sense of place, and that's the city of Ramallah on the West Bank, Palestine: with the feel of cinema verite, we travel block by block through the city, on the ground, in a cab, in this slice of life in an ordinary day for Abu Laila, an ordinary man. Yet we soon learn that he is anything but ordinary: he was a judge in another country--asked by unspecified agents to come back and serve his country, and then (because of repeated changes in power and government administration) denied that role. So, while he waits for his own form of ordinary life to return to him, he drives his brother in law's cab.

Still, judge he remains, and with grave demeanor and fine judicial discernment he navigates his day as the judge he is, deciding on each prospective customer on the case's merit as he sees it (and denying several of them their ride because he won't have them in his cab). He reminds people to fasten their seatbelts, walk on the sidewalk, or not carry firearms, and they think his admonitions absurd, as they have accepted as normal a world which has lost its moorings. True to his sense of propriety, Mr. Laila goes to extraordinary lengths in an attempt to return to its owner a cell phone left in his cab--and in this society, he almost gets lost in a Kafkaesque police system determined to find a different story in his simple quest to return the phone.

Laila's birthday is a day made up of incidents like this, marked by the judge's stubborn integrity, by his refusal to relinquish his own sense of how things should be or to stop trying to impose it on others. This juxtaposition of his stern sense of order, of what is right and proper, with the off-the-rails situations he encounters, is a rich source of dark comedy as the absurdity of his own position in life expands to a view of the absurdity of his country's life as everyone attempts to carry on. One of the film's most deliciously comedic moments occurs when Abu is in a coffee shop waiting for his car to be repaired in a nearby garage. The television is on and the men in the cafe are discussing, in classic desultory barroom fashion, what they're seeing on the news: those are Israeli soldiers. No, they're Americans. This is Palestine; no, it's Iraq. And on it goes - none of it really makes sense, nor does one have the feeling it really matters, here in this cafe, to know.

Of course, given the time and place, we expect something terrible to happen, and it does, when an explosion hits the garage. Then the conversation moves to the floor, where the men are huddling under a rickety table for protection. What was the explosion? Who caused it? More possibilities are discussed but again there is no answer, and such information seems irrelevant in any case as the story moves on to the scene and the immediate situation must be dealt with.

At the scene, a donkey has been driven "insane" (a panic reaction) by the explosion and people are trying to help it; Abu's car is commandeered to take the injured to the hospital. Later, the car winds up decorated for a wedding and finally he arrives home, birthday cake intact. He straightens his tie, visibly pulls  himself together, still in one piece after his harrowing day, and enjoys Laila's birthday. (I hope that isn't a spoiler; I don't think the point of the movie is to be suspenseful.) The viewer is not betrayed; this is a comedy, however dark, and it has a happy ending. So don't be afraid to see it.

What's in a name? I have to think the choice of "Laila" (meaning something like "night beauty," I think) for both the father and the daughter is a reference to the classic Laila-Majnu story, which I knew from its Hindi version. It's Arabic in origin, having been brought to India by the Muslims, but now is iconic in India in the same way that Romeo and Juliet are in English tradition. In Indian movies (and not just the Hindi ones), references to Laila or Majnu are usually translated into English, in the subtitles, as Juliet or Romeo. It's a tragic love story in which the lovers, from different tribes, are thwarted, Laila (the epitome of Love) is sacrificed and Majnu is driven insane. In this lovely, brilliant film, the land of Laila is similarly riven and its inhabitants, like the confused donkey, are driven into forms of madness, each in their own way, by thwarted destiny and love denied. Abu's is a tribe of humanity riven by forces opposing love and unity, its people's natural course of peace and productivity thwarted, its energies channeled into "insane" behaviors. A reference to the Romeo and Juliet of Arabs seems true and very fitting here.

To this foreign viewer, the genius of this film is not just in portraying the irony of ordinary people carrying on with daily life in absurd circumstances, when war impinges randomly. It does that, but it makes the point in such a way that the message is much more universal because the people are all so ordinary that they they would be completely recognizable in my own town, in a different country, different circumstance, different crises. No matter where we live, ordinary life is just an illusion, because everything can change in a moment.

Mohammed Bakri, who plays Abu Laila, is wonderful as the extraordinary Everyman, his restrained, dignified performance reminiscent of a Buster Keaton or a Jacques Tati, who also found themselves trying to uphold their dignity in trying circumstances--or maybe even more, of a Charlie Chaplin when he found himself in the grip of the machinery of the factory or the state. Of course, here the situation is far more serious. There are also many memorable cameos, especially among the taxi passengers (both men and women). Mashid Masharawi, the director, has created an extraordinarily humane film about the human condition, rich in ironic humor and, I think, a faith in the goodness of people. Or at least a recognition that goodness exists in some of us.

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