'Price of Love': TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Rough around the edges.

A taxi driver on the streets of Addis Ababa loses his cab but finds true love.

Taxi drivers are perennials in movies, and it makes sense: they routinely meet strangers, so there’s no need for screenwriters to manufacture unlikely collisions, plus they're witness to the street’s underbelly and often reluctant participants in it – one reason that films about taxi drivers are usually films about crime. Such is the case in Price of Love, the first theatrical feature from young Ethiopian filmmaker Hermon Hailay, in which a young cabbie’s chivalry lands him in trouble and in love. But this noble-minded exercise, clearly made on a dime with a cast of rookies, doesn’t have enough dramatic firepower to surmount its highly visible rough edges.

Teddy (Eskindir Tameru) intervenes when Marcos (Kassahun Getatchew), a violent pimp and sex trafficker, tries to grab a prostitute he considers his property outside a club. The girl, Fere (Fereweni Gebregergs), hops in Teddy’s cab while Marcos promises he’ll get even. When Teddy drops the girl off and she asks for his card, a Pretty Women-style romance seems imminent. And so it is – only slightly delayed by Fere’s use, a few days later, of the back of Teddy’s cab to conduct business. When Marcos steals Teddy’s taxi as ransom until Fere is returned, the pair is forced together to try to get it back.

There’s an Oedipal charge to this relationship. Teddy’s mother, whose photo he keeps beside his bed, was a prostitute as well, which complicates and deepens his blooming feelings for Fere. He offloads some of these anxieties at the local bar, where he clearly used to spend more of his time. “I knew you’d come back”, the bar’s resident stool-philosopher tells him, in between doling out aphorisms such as “there’s no fate, just your character”.

Fere’s background is more traumatic. Having been abused by Marcos – “every night with him was painful. I lost my dignity” – she’s now effectively homeless: “I sleep in a different client’s house every night”. She’s so beaten down that plying her trade is the only time where she feels “expensive and important”. She moves in with Teddy, though their relationship seems oddly chaste and occasionally stumbles when she’s forced back on the street in order to make money for food.

To get Teddy’s taxi back Fere eventually sacrifices herself, returning to Marcos and a one-way ticket to Dubai. Teddy spirals downwards, back on the drink and almost succumbing to his very own moment of Bicycle Thief desperation. He’s saved by the return of his car, as well as the discovery that his mother actually bought the taxi for him outright before she died; the installments he’s been paying on it have accumulated into a nice nest egg.  

The whole thing culminates in a race against time as Teddy fights traffic to reach the airport before his love is strong-armed out of the country. This sequence is padded out by editors Max Conil and Habtegebrel Abebe in a way that leaches it of all tension: endless cuts back and forth between Teddy’s car and Fere’s without any discernible advancement in their positions, literal or otherwise. That uneasy bisection is representative of the entire film, whose treatment of the sex trade and women as chattel in contemporary Ethiopia feels diluted by Hailay’s decision to tell that story from the point of view of a male saviour.

For all the horror on display it’s hard to believe any of it; Marcos is a one-note villain with the moustache to prove it, and the performance by Getatchew feels straight from the grindhouse. Tech credits are rudimentary across the board, with DP Mulgeta Amaru blanketing the actors in light without much care for the integrity of the frame. As for how it ends, the clue’s in the title, whose subtlety is representational. The absence of that definite article makes the answer seem not just cheap, but up for debate.

 

Production Company: HM Film Production PLC

Cast: Eskindir Tameru, Fereweni Gebregergs, Kassahun Getatchew, Solomon Teka, Dawit Gulilat

Director: Hermon Hailay

Writers: Max Conil, Hermon Hailay

Producer: Max Conil

Director of Photography: Mulgeta Amaru

Editor: Max Conil, Habtegebrel Abebe

Sound Recordist: Ermias Sebsebe

Music Producer: Yared Shumete

Sales: HM Film Production PLC

 

14A, 99 minutes

 

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