'El Clásico': Film Review

Hene Films
From left: Rozhin Sharifi, director Halkawt Mustafa and Wrya Ahmed on the set of 'El Clásico'
A far-fetched yet touching blend of dreams and grit.

Iraq’s official foreign-language Oscar submission revolves around two brothers in Iraqi Kurdistan who embark on a risky trip to Spain to meet a soccer hero.

A pair of brothers, both little people, root for different soccer teams but are on the same side when push comes to shove in El Clásico. Halkawt Mustafa’s impossible-dream road trip takes the sibling duo from Hawraman, in Kurdish Iraq, to Madrid on a mission to prove themselves capable of “big” things despite their physical stature. While the combination of humor and harrowing perils ranges from the awkward to the touching to the surreal, the feature offers unusual views of a war-torn region, through the lens of a romantic story tinged with allegory.

The production is notable as the first screen project permitted to film in Baghdad’s Green Zone, or international sector, where the filmmakers were never far from falling bombs. According to the movie’s production notes, the bombings usually stop during big soccer matches, given Iraqis’ love of the sport. The film’s title refers to the name applied to any face-off between archrivals Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Played by real-life brothers who are first-time actors, Alan (Wrya Ahmed) and Shirwan (Dana Ahmed) come down on different sides of the Spanish football divide. Like shoemaker Jalal (Kamaran Raoof), their landlord and Shirwan’s boss, Alan is a Real Madrid fan. The younger of the two, he runs a café and is in love with Jalal’s daughter, Gona (Rozhin Sharifi). They've guarded their secret for several years, Alan socking away his money and waiting for the right time to reveal their marriage plans to the older man. Though Alan and his brother are accepted in their village, Jalal is offended by the idea of his daughter wedding “a man like you,” refusing to grant his permission and setting off the siblings’ gutsy adventure.

Determined to prove himself worthy to his beloved’s father, Alan hatches a crazy plan: He’ll steal the pair of traditional Kurdish shoes, klash, that Jalal made for Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo (in fact they were made by the Ahmed brothers) and deliver them to the athlete, in the process realizing Jalal’s dream and demonstrating his own courage and resourcefulness. Shirwan, at the urging of his even-tempered schoolteacher wife (Nyan Aziz), puts aside his preference for Barcelona to join his heartsick brother on the improbable journey.

The screenplay, by Mustafa and Anders Fagerholt, benefits from touches of irreverent humor as it sets the brothers on a challenge-riddled path. Beyond such ordinary pitfalls as running out of gas for their four-wheel ATV, Alan and Shirwan confront curfews, diplomatic red tape and far worse. At an especially desperate moment, an accommodating Baghdad hotel owner connects them with a black marketeer (Nassr Hassan) who offers a lifeline of sorts when all hope might otherwise be lost. Conducting business out of a tent next to his wife’s grave, in a remote compound, the elderly man also provides a safe haven for young orphans, providing the film’s most pointed observation about war.

In spite of its over-the-top dramatic twists, El Clásico is winningly heartfelt, drawing upon the lead actors’ natural chemistry and especially the understated performance of Wrya Ahmed. With fine camerawork by Kjell Vassdal and a mournful score by Trond Bjerknes, Iraqi-Norwegian filmmaker Mustafa has crafted a visually striking road trip. As they navigate city traffic or observe, with foreboding, the shells of abandoned cars in bleak stretches of desert, Shirwan and Alan are small against an indifferent world. But they’re also strong and resilient in a way that’s entirely their own.

Production companies: Hene Films, Turbin Film
Cast: Dana Ahmed, Wrya Ahmed, Kamaran Raoof, Rozhin Sharifi
Director: Halkawt Mustafa
Screenwriters: Anders Fagerholt, Halkawt Mustafa
Producer: Halkawt Mustafa
Director of photography: Kjell Vassdal
Production designer: Bárbara Enríquez
Costume designer: Mayra Juárez
Editor: Inge-Lise Langfeldt
Composer: Trond Bjerknes

Not rated, 97 minutes