Locarno 2017: Wajib review


★★★★☆
A whip-smart, moving comedy of family and community, Annemarie Jacir's third feature Wajib sees a father and son embark on a day-long odyssey around Nazareth hand-delivering wedding invitations. In the process, they discover the complexity of their own relationship.

Shadi (Saleh Bakri) returns to Nazareth from Italy for the occasion of his sister's wedding. In accordance with Palestinian tradition, he accompanies his father to personally deliver the wedding invitations to the family, friends and associates. His father Abu Shadi (played by Saleh's father and veteran actor, Mohammad Bakri) is a school teacher, a respected man of the community, whose life was rocked by his wife's elopement and their subsequent divorce.

As they drive the battered Volvo around the streets of the town, Abu sees much to criticise - the piles of garbage, the customs of the people - confirming his decision to leave. Although the wedding is in the winter he won't be staying for Christmas, returning to his girlfriend in Rome. The comedy is initially light. Abu scolds his father for smoking - their has already been a heart attack - and each invitee automatically assumes that Abu is staying in America, the assumed location for anyone who emigrates and where Abu's mother has shacked up with her new husband.

In the car, father and son quarrel about everything but also exchange fond memories. In the opening half of Wajib, the visits produce sketches of a variety of Arab households, a lively realism and down to earth social humour. Petty boasts - Abu Shadi claims his son is studying medicine, whereas in reality he’s an architect - are revealed and slights and the occasional social faux pas have to be elegantly repaired. Abu is now an outsider looking on, deriding the Palestinian habit of living in an ancient historical city and littering it with tarpaulin and plastic chairs. But his father also has a keen eye for how Italy has changed his son and disapproves (rightly) of his red trousers and pink shirt.

Daughter and bride-to-be Umal (Maria Zreik) appears for lunch and then a dress fitting in which it becomes obvious that the elephant in the room is the missing mother, who might or might not turn up. Abu Shadi has been abandoned both by his wife and now he fears his son, who seems enamoured also of his girlfriend's father, a famous PLO activist and exile whose love of country is now almost purely abstract. In a phone conversation, Shadi describes the scene before him as "a grove of orange trees" when he's actually looking at a tacky Christmas decorations shop. This undercutting of inflated political rhetoric is in itself a radical and humane corrective.

Terrorists are briefly in a comic conversation with a neighbour, who is obviously besotted by Shadi, and it is the apparently apolitical normality of Wajib which paradoxically is its most powerful political message. The car itself is a family heirloom, in which Abu learned to drive as well as having a number of crashes. It could be seen as a symbol for the family itself - rickety, battered and in need of repair - but which ultimately will take them where they need to go.

The Locarno Film Festival takes place from 2-12 August 2017. For more info: pardo.ch

John Bleasdale | @drjonty

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