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Blessed Benefit is a tongue-in-cheek recommendation for a brief stay in Jordan’s friendly prison system, described as far saner than life in the rest of the country. When an elderly building contractor is sentenced to three months on a minor fraud charge, it gives him a chance to meet new people, while it opens a window on everyday corruption and survival techniques that flourish at every level of society. This well-made feature marks a successful move to narrative filmmaking for documaker Mahmoud al Massad, a Jordanian now based in Holland, though its gentle, offhand comedy lacks the edginess and bite to make deep inroads beyond the Mideast.
While it follows on the heels of Massad’s unfocused doc about Palestine This Is My Picture When I Was Dead, it is closer in spirit to his well-received Recycle (2008), which explored the world of Abu Musa al Zarqawi, who was Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenant. Whereas Recycle used an ordinary junk dealer to illuminate the poverty and discontent that become the breeding ground for political radicalization, Blessed Benefit chooses to train its lens on the beleaguered Ahmad Taher Farraj (played by actor Ahmad Taher) to reveal other ills affecting the country.
For those who can’t bear another prison film full of beatings, brutality and torture, expect some welcome relief here. Massad’s sharply observed screenplay overturns genre stereotypes and shows the camaraderie as well as the discomfort in crowded cell W6, where Ahmad lands after he fails to build a wall for a prepaid customer. His unreliable cousin (Odai Hijazi) is too busy trying to import some portable computers to pay bail for him, which is the start of a running gag about laptops. He has to bribe an official with a sheep to get them out of customs, and when he finally succeeds, he runs afoul of professional con man Ibrahim (craftily played by director Massad), who in turn winds up in cell W6.
The inmates are well individualized in a few swift strokes. Mor (Maher Khammash) is the cell boss whose emotional fragility Ahmad immediately ferrets out. When Ahmad tells him why he’s in jail, Mor asks, “Did you benefit?” The answer is no, as it would be for everyone else in the cell, and crime really doesn’t seem to pay very well in Jordan.Yet it often seems to be the only way to make ends meet.
The witty scripting has a nice low-key quality that refuses to spell things out, but some of the jokes are so local they risk flying over the heads of unprepared viewers. For instance, why do unprepossessing oldsters like Ahmad and Ibrahim have lovely young brides who could be their daughters? Other gags are universal. Replying to a clueless guard who wants to know what it takes to get on Facebook, Ahmad explains drily: “Electricity, a phone, Internet and a decent picture.” The film opens with him trying to hook his household up to a stolen electric line, a scene that ends in his family dining by candlelight.
Poor, scrawny but far from stupid, Ahmad has an unruffled calm and a delight in putting his nose in other people’s business that is funny in itself. He asks everyone what they’re in jail for. Spying, terrorism, fraud. Some white collar types answer, “We’re the stock market guys.” “You did a great job,” Ahmad shoots back without batting an eye.
Though the prison scenes, which make up the bulk of the film, allow for few variations, cinematographer Georges Mihelis brings such warmth and imagination to lighting faces there is always something interesting to watch. Four international editors ensure things proceed at a fast clip on this German-Jordan-Netherlands coprod.
Production companies: Twenty Twenty, Jo Image, Habberkrats, I See Films in association with ZDF/Arte
Cast: Ahmad Thaher, Maher Khammash, Odai Hijazi, Nadeem Rimawi, Mahmoud al Massad, Fayez Salmane el Huwaiti, Omar el Natshe, Soliman el Hajaya, Nadim Mushahwar
Director, screenwriter: Mahmoud al Massad
Producers: Thanassis Karathanos, Dima Hamdallah, Julius Ponten, Mahmoud al Massad
Director of photography: Georges Mihelis
Costume designer: Zeina Soufan
Editors: Mahmoud al Massad, Wouter Van Lujin, Simon El Habre, Petar Markovic
Music: Andre Matthias
Casting: Nart Amer Souber
World sales: Beta Cinema
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery)
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