'Barakah Meets Barakah' ('Barakah yoqabil Barakah'): Berlin Review

Barakah Meets Barakah Still 1 - Fatima AlBanawi - H 2016
Courtesy of El-Housh Productions
Easygoing charmer conceals some sharp political barbs.

Hisham Fageeh and Fatima Al Banawi star as the eponymous duo in Mahmoud Sabbagh's romantic comedy from Saudia Arabia.

"Where little fears grow great, great love grows there" as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, an all-male production of which provides the backdrop for Mahmoud Sabbagh's Saudi Arabian romantic comedy Barakah Meets Barakah (Barakah yoqabil Barakah). Surely one of the more conventional films ever to enjoy a premiere at the Berlinale's risk-embracing Forum parallel section, it's of considerable interest as a very rare cinematic export from a country where nearly all manifestations of cinema have been officially banned since 1979.

A suitable pick for any festival or platform favoring human-rights themes, this easygoing crowd-pleaser is automatically rendered rich and strange by its unlikely origins, arriving three and a half years after Haifaa Al Mansour's, German-produced, Oscar-submitted Wadjda. Screenings in The Kingdom, where the only functioning cinema is an IMAX theater screening scientific documentaries, will necessarily be samizdat and/or in private homes. But there will be considerable interest in the picture in Arab nations following a well-publicized Berlinale bow. And screen-debutante leading-lady Fatima Al Banawi, who plays well-heeled, immaculately-attired Instagram celebrity Bibi, displays a winning combination of beauty and personality that deserves to open doors in the longer-established industries across the Middle East.

Fashion-forward Bibi is taking part in a photo shoot on the Djeddah waterfront when municipal law-enforcement officer Barakah (Hisham Fageeh) turns up to check on permits. Bibi and Barakah's paths cross on several further occasions, with a palpable romantic spark quickly taking hold between two twenty-somethings who hail from very different social strata. Bibi has been brought up in western-style luxury by her adoptive parents; amateur drama enthusiast Barakah resides in a ramshackle neighborhood notable for its strong community spirit. He's the beneficiary of daily advice from two elderly locals: his shisha-puffing uncle Da'ash (Sami Hifny) and foghorn-voiced midwife Sa'adiya (Khairia Nazmi), who lives in his building's rooftop apartment and is a ebulliently abundant source of folklore remedies.

Every scene featuring Hifny or Nazmi provides laugh-out-loud highlights, with respected senior Da'ash taking a gloriously irreverent attitude to the authorities' manifold repressions. Scolded by the dreaded religious police for watching a TV broadcast of legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum in a pavement cafe, his response is a brusque "piss off, schmucks!" The ever-watchful holy cops are the main obstacle to Bibi and Barakah spending any private time together, with all public spaces governed by inflexible laws that forbid contact between unmarried men and women. Writer-director-producer Sabbagh largely plays such hindrances for laughs, in a picture so impeccably chaste that the lovebird couple never even get to kiss.

But on two occasions the newcomer gives Barakah illustrated monologues which address the dismaying current state of Saudi Arabia in bracingly direct and damning terms, contrasting photographs of public life, the arts and street culture taken in the present day with equivalents from the more liberal decades of the 1960s and 1970s. Sabbagh also takes an amusingly mocking poke at the state censors by haphazardly applying pixellation to "controversial" images and behavior.

The development of the relationship between Barakah and Bibi — whose actual name also turns out to be Barakah, surprise surprise — is only patchily engaging, however. Fageeh's slightly stiff earnestness underscores the virginal Barakah's hesitancy in matters of the heart, but the business of him playing Ophelia in the Hamlet production never really clicks into proper comic gear. And the picture fizzles out in its third act rather than building to a properly satisfying finale. So much for love conquering all: "No one is strong enough to break out," is the somewhat glum takeaway.

Simply being able to see ordinary streets and locales in Jeddah, via experienced DOP Victor Credi's widescreen cinematography, nevertheless endows Barakah Meets Barakah with invaluable documentary qualities. The home-city of Sabbagh and his team — a Red Sea metropolis of some three million souls famed for its diversity and relative liberalism — appeals as a suitable candidate to be Saudi Arabia's future capital of film. What dreams may come!

Production company: El Housh
Cast: Hisham Fageeh, Fatima Al Banawi, Sami Hifny, Khairia Nazmi, Abdulmajeed Al-Ruhaidi, Turki Sheikk, Marian Bilal
Director / Screenwriter / Producer: Mahmoud Sabbagh
Cinematographer: Victor Credi
Production designers: Zainab Al Mashat, Ahmed Mater
Costume designers: Nasibah Hafiz, Samar Idress
Editors: Sofia Subercaseaux, Daniel Garcia
Composers: Zeid Hamdan, Maii Waleed
Sales: MPM, Paris

No Rating, 88 minutes