'Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces' ('Al Ma’ wal Khodra wal Wajh El Hassan'): Locarno Review

NY Locarno still 1-H 2016
Courtesy of Locarno Film Festival
Lively but lightweight.

Acclaimed Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah's wedding-themed comedy-drama will play Toronto after bowing in competition at Locarno.

The fuchsia's bright in Yousry Nasrallah's Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces (Al Ma’ wal Khodra wal Wajh El Hassan) — along with every color in the known rainbow and beyond. A brightly bouncy, appealingly cast comedy-drama about a family of small-town wedding-caterers, this ninth feature-length outing from director/co-writer Nasrallah has its charms but plays like an extended, tonally wayward pilot for a small-screen soap. It stuck out like a cheerfully garish sore thumb when premiering alongside a range of dour slow-cinema rivals in Locarno's Golden Leopard competition last month, and international prospects will depend heavily on how well this unapologetic 'crowd-pleaser' pleases the crowds in the Contemporary World Cinema section at Toronto.

Nasrallah has enjoyed plentiful exposure at festivals and arthouses around the world since his 1988 debut Summer Thefts: both 1993's Mercedes and 1999's El Medina (co-written with Claire Denis) competed at Locarno, the 4 1/2-hour Bab El Shams (2004) bowed at Cannes, The Aquarium (2008) at Berlin, and Scheherazade, Tell Me A Story (2009) at Venice. Then in 2012 he vied for the Palme d'Or with After the Battle (2012), one of the first pictures to deal with the aftermath of the Arab Spring — albeit in a melodramatic and heavy-handed fashion.

Most of these films prominently feature Nasrallah's collaborator of choice, the tall and smilingly genial Bassem Samra, whose family featured prominently in Nasrallah's 1995 documentary On Boys, Girls and the Veil. The Samra clan's business now provides the factual basis for Nasrallah and Ahmed Abdallah's disorientingly busy screenplay. Set in bustlingly intimate Belqas, the story hinges on romantic entanglements. Samra's Refaat is engaged to his beautiful cousin Karima (Menna Shalabi), but both of their hearts lie elsewhere: Refaat's with the recently-divorced Shadia (Laila Elwi), Karima with Refaat's shamelessly womanizing brother Galal (Ahmed Daoud) — who happens to be Karima's own former brother-in-law.

In tandem with these inter-personal complexities, the town is the setting for wider machinations involving the rapacious entrepreneur Farid (Mohammed Farrag), who schemes to buy the homely catering-company from Refaat and Galal's ageing father Yehya (Alaa Zenhom) and make it the nucleus of a fast-food operation. Events come to a head during an elaborate wedding organized by Farid and his imperious wife Om Roqayya — the latter played by mono-monikered veteran "Sabreen" in her first screen role since she essayed the hugely demanding title-role in 1999's smash mini-series on the Arab world's most legendary chanteuse Om Kulthum.

Om Roqayya provides Sabreen with rather less to play with, written as a one-note incarnation of jealousy, entitlement and spite, typical of a script which sees human motivation in bluntly black-and-white terms — even if their presentation is very much an explosion of living color and pulsating musical cues. Kudos to production-designer Hamdy Abdel Rahman and costume-designer Ghada Wafik, whose contributions are eye-poppingly vivid. During heavily-populated set-pieces Nasrallah and company even veer towards Bollywood-esque excess and artificiality, his characters reveling in terpsichorean sensuality.

But the picture clunks back to earth during dialog sequences, and its nearly two-hour running-time becomes more chore to endure than joy to behold. The third act's unexpectedly serious developments and histrionics sit particularly awkwardly with the glossy effervescence which is Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces' prevailing mood. Seemingly uncertain how to wrap up proceedings, Nasrallah and Abdallah opt for a chaotic finale involving a swarm of cheap-CGI bees unleashed by Om Roqayya, who by this stage has basically become the Wicked Witch of the (Middle) East.

Production company: El Sobky Film For Cinema
Cast: Laila Elwi, Bassem Samra, Menna ShalabiZeina Mansour, Sabreen, Mohamed Aly Rizk, Ahmed Daoud, Alaa Zenhom
Director: Yousry Nasrallah
Screenwriters: Ahmed Abdallah, Yousry Nasrallah
Producer: Ahmed El Sobky
Cinematographer: Samir Bahsan
Production designer: Hamdy Abdel Rahman
Costume designer: Ghada Wafik
Editor: Mona Rabi'
Composer: Wael Alaa
Sales: Pyramide International, Paris
No Rating, 115 minutes