Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit abudhabifilmfestival.ae and follow the Abu Dhabi Film Festival on Twitter at @AbuDhabiFF.
Having hit the glorious one-two punch of Bastardo and Still Life the night before, the impetus was off Tuesday morning to deliver the erstwhile elusive greatness so much of the festival had seemed to be missing. Thus, of course, that craving of the cinephile mind satisfied, more physical demands took hold—steady on—and some long-overdue slumber saw the festival’s fourth full day kick off (far) later than intended, with Kurdish western My Sweet Pepper Land the most egregious missed opportunity. Spilled milk, as they say…
To Dreams of the City, then, a Syrian entry in the festival’s aforesaid sidebar for great Arabian debuts. Not best-preserved, Mohammad Malas’ film follows the fortunes of a widowed woman and her two young boys as they return to Damascus to take refuge with her father, an embittered aggressor who delights in beating daughter and grandsons both. That Malas can make the story’s sweetness thrive against his often harrowing depiction of this dreadful domestic situation is testament to his deft tonal balance, equally offsetting the understated urgency of the military coups that form the backdrop for this ‘50s-set film. Rough around the edges, to say the least, Dreams of the City almost awkwardly attests the haphazard nature of this makeshift household’s day-to-day life by way of its production values; above all, the movie’s gracelessness is indicative of its inability to be anything but, given the social situation.
Fresh off its victory at the London Film Festival, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida opened another day belatedly started with the director himself on-hand to introduce it. His insistence that the film, a noirish road movie set in ‘60s Poland as a Jewish-born nun and her prostitute aunt search for the remains of their betrayed family, carries no overarching message is an interesting disclaimer, particularly given the film’s forthright focus on faith and forgiveness. The angelic airs of Agata Trzebuchowska are essential thereto: a first-time actor, she excels in exuding the Christian characteristics of her eponymous heroine, paramount to Pawlikowski’s central dichotomy that’s infinitely more complex than its extremities might suggest. Gorgeously shot in black and white and meticulously framed with an excess of overhead space, Ida is as engrossing to absorb as it is to observe, its story—by turns haunting and humorous—as beautiful and beguiling as its director’s insistence that, simply, it is what it is.
In setting and shooting, in style and subject, Ida could scarcely differ more from immediate follow-up Siddharth, yet there’s a shared sense of sinister progression to both that made of them a fascinating double-bill. This Indian offering, directed by Canada-raised Richie Mehta, springs from a story the writer/director gleamed on a brief rickshaw ride. Increasingly agitated when their young boy fails to return from an out-of-town summer job, a Delhi family beg and borrow to follow what few leads they have in search of their son. Rajesh Tailang’s is a tremendous central performance as the panicked paterfamilias, whose cross-country journey gestures to issues of Indian impoverishment and the lack of education and access to technology that makes—at least to more privileged eyes—almost unfathomably uphill his struggle. Deeply and devastatingly affecting, Siddharth’s sublime third-act montages emphasise its essential focus on the incomprehensible anguish of simply not knowing.
A lacklustre last few days were by no means boosted by a last-ditch effort to eat with the eyes as many movies as possible: Thursday, technically the festival’s antepenultimate day but officially its closing, added just a paltry two films to the by-then terribly slowly-growing total. Lucky that they were good, at least: first came Peace After Marriage, Ghazi Albuliwi’s New York-set culture-clash comedy that takes a familiar rom-com formula and renovates it with the oddity of imported conflict and, more importantly, a healthy helping of plain old storytelling skill. Albuwili himself stars as Arafat, a Palestinian sex-addict whose bachelorhood is a constant source of shame to his caring but conservative parents. Not afraid to toss all traces of dignity out the window, Albuwili writes himself into the most sublimely silly situations where he’s required to wail and weep his way out. The magic of the movie, though, lies in its ability to use these irreverent antics to consider the underlying issues its narrative addresses, namely the amusing yet abrasive absurdities of ancient antagonistic tradition. Albuwili, a shrewd director as well as a snappy writer, sensibly leaves the bulk of the pain to Hiam Abbass’ eyes, and oh how painful it is.
Flight time fast approaching, there was room left only for one film to round out this personal perspective on the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and what better to do it with than The Vagabonds, an essentially Egyptian story whose Godfather-esque airs and projection here via VHS beautifully summate everything of this extraordinary city’s amalgamation of the old and the new, the East and the West. Not to mention it’s a bloody good movie to boot: Daouad Abdel Sayed crafts a considerable epic in only two hours here, its final frames so far-divorced from its first that anyone would be hard-pressed to immediately recall how we’d gotten from one to the other. Dryly funny and darkly dramatic, it’s the inverse relationship of these facets that makes The Vagabonds so fascinating to behold, its increasingly straight face drawing together the commerce and criminality at its heart to demonstrate their mutual corrosiveness. The characters who emerge at its end, though so seemingly similar, are not quite the same who entered at its inception. How fitting a film indeed to end this incarnation of Abu Dhabi.