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All hell breaks loose when the son of a Muslim cleric lies about his medical entrance exam scores in Ali’s Wedding, a wholesale charmer based on the real-life experiences of its leading man, Osamah Sami. Directed with a glossy commercial sheen and expert comic timing by Jeffrey Walker, the tyro Australian director whose credits include episodes of Modern Family and Difficult People, this sure-fire crowd-pleaser could well find a receptive audience abroad after its August bow in local cinemas. Powered by a winning lead performance from Sami, who wrote the script with veteran scribe Andrew Knight (Hacksaw Ridge), and vividly drawn support from a host of local stars, Walker’s debut mines rapid-fire laughs and bountiful heart from a story of romantic misadventure set in train by a young man desperate to live up to his father’s expectations.
Though this one was shot first, Walker’s next feature, Dance Academy, was released in Oz in April, and showed him to be a filmmaker of brightly lit visual brio capable of coaxing finely wrought performances from his actors. Ali’s Wedding sees him working in a more broadly comic register, though one that can accommodate scenes of torture at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s henchman and of a child being blown up by a land mine. These horrors are delivered as flashbacks narrated by Ali (Sami), introduced in the film’s opening scene trying to outrun the police on a tractor, in a sequence Walker and his Dance Academy editor Geoffrey Lamb cycle back to at the film’s final act.
Fleeing Iraq by way of Iran, Ali’s father Mahdi (Australian actor Don Hany, with an accent that comes and goes) migrates to Melbourne, where he becomes the leader of a local mosque. His son works at a local gas station and pines for an Egyptian-Australian girl, Dianne (Helana Sawires). Like Dianne, Ali is studying hard to win a place at the University of Melbourne to study medicine. Unlike her, he doesn’t have the grades, but competitiveness with the son of his father’s rival at the mosque leads him to lie to the congregation about his marks.
Doubling down on his deception, Ali decides to attend university lectures even though he isn’t enrolled, with the hope of getting in the following year. Meanwhile his eligibility in the community has skyrocketed, and his father decides to pair him off with the daughter of his most admiring parishioner (played with scene-stealing relish by Rodney Afif). Ali is invited to tea to meet Yomna (Maha Wilson), his bride-to-be, at the home of her parents, where the suitor’s method of taking tea is considered a crucial signifier of honest intent. Discarding etiquette in the hope of exploding the betrothal, Ali only fast-tracks it — right at the moment his relationship with Dianne, who has begun helping him with coursework, is blossoming. Meanwhile the son of the doctrinaire Sayyed Ghaffar (Majid Shokor), who believes that Dianne’s place is at her father’s fish and chip shop rather than on campus, begins to suspect that Ali doesn’t know his fibulas from his tibias.
Following a thoroughly predictable rom-com template to thoroughly satisfying effect in a manner rarely seen in Australian cinema since Strictly Ballroom, Ali’s Wedding hits all the beats while deftly capturing the tensions of the first-generation immigrant, torn between the norms of the country he calls home and those espoused by his family. The film’s portrait of contemporary Islam is nicely nuanced, with those who adhere to absolute canonical authority at odds with figures like Ali’s father who believe, among other things, that women should be allowed to attend university. Nuanced, but not slavish: in prayer sessions at the mosque, Walker toggles back and forth between the men’s discussions and the reactions of their wives and daughters watching the proceedings on closed-circuit TV, crammed into an anteroom at the back.
A veteran of local procedurals, Hany dials down the dash to present a portrait of a man in exile for whom faith is an abiding comfort. Mahdi’s reason and compassion means he can offer his flock a flexible interpretation of their obligations, though his enlightenment doesn’t preclude a set of expectations under which his three very Australian children labor. As Ali, Sami is plainly too old for his role but pulls it off anyway, investing enormous sweetness in a man better suited to playing Saddam Hussein in the mosque’s annual musical than wearing a smock. Making her feature debut as his would-be girlfriend, Sawires convincingly balances exasperation and affection as the heroine well aware she’s smarter than the men around her.
Tech credits are slick across the board, with composer Nigel Westlake’s melding of Western and Middle Eastern sounds lending the film some of the bounce he gave Babe and its sequel, and cinematographer Donald McAlpine (The Dressmaker) fittingly painting in bold colors and few shadows.
Production companies: Matchbox Pictures, Emerald Productions
Cast: Osamah Sami, Helana Sawires, Don Hany, Rodney Afif, Robert Rabiah, Majid Shokor, Rahel Romahn, Frances Duca, Ryan Corr, Maha Wilson
Director: Jeffrey Walker
Screenwriters: Osamah Sami, Andrew Knight
Producers: Sheila Jayadev, Helen Panckhurst
Executive producers: Tony Ayres, Ian Kirk, Michael McMahon, Greg Sitch, Nina Stevenson
Director of photography: Donald McAlpine
Art director: Marianne Evans
Costume designer: Anna Borghesi
Production designer: Paul Heath
Editor: Geoffrey Lamb
Composer: Nigel Westlake
Casting: Allison Meadows
Sales: Beta Cinema
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