'Halal Love' ('Bil Halal'): Dubai Review

BIL HALAL (HALAL LOVE ) still - H 2015
Courtesy of Dubai International Film Festival
A daring, entertaining bedroom farce gently targets the contradictions in Muslim mores.

A humorous look at love, sex and marriage in a strict Muslim world.

An entertaining bouquet of stories about unhappy lovers are interwoven in the Lebanese comedy Halal Love (Bil Halal), with the arresting twist that they all revolve around the contradictions of trying to follow traditional Islamic law. Their humor, and sometimes melancholy, arise from the difficulty of doing what is “halal” or permissible, while avoiding what is “haram” or prohibited. Suffice it to say that trying to get one’s love life together under sharia law is no picnic, especially for the women who are the film's central characters and victims.

Writer-director Assad Fouladkar, whose award-winning first feature When Maryam Spoke Out (2001) drew critical applause, brings a lighter touch to a screenplay that feels daring, even when it borders broad television farce. With Sundance and Rotterdam outings scheduled after its Dubai premiere, the Germany-Lebanon co-production, released by Films Distribution, should pique curiosity as it lifts some veils on the subject under discussion.

The clash between religious strictures and the way ordinary people sneak around them has fueled many a sex comedy, from The Canterbury Tales to Divorce, Italian Style. In Pietro Germi’s classic 1962 film, shot when divorce was illegal in Catholic Italy, the husband can find no better way to move on with his love life than to murder his inconvenient wife, while nominally respecting the Church’s laws against divorce. A similarly arch approach can be found in this farcical look at Muslim mores regarding love and sex. Funny (but not as hysterical as the uproarious opening scene leads one to hope), socially relevant, progressive but careful not to be too grating, Halal Love casts its net wide and should capture sizeable audiences in those Arab countries that allow it to be shown.

In a howlingly funny opener, a teacher explains how babies are made to a classroom of small kids. She’s so oblique that one little girl becomes paranoid of worms, fearing they will make her pregnant. The gag is drawn out over several scenes with great success.

The girl’s domineering mother is on the verge of a nervous breakdown dealing with her hubby’s unflagging sex drive. The solution, she feels, is to find him a second wife who can relieve her of some marital duties, while doubling as a babysitter and housemaid. She carries this absurd idea off with confident flair, particularly after she locates the kooky spinster “Bardot” as a potential candidate for the job.

When Maryam Spoke Out took a serious look at the damage done to a young marriage by social pressure for the bride to get pregnant, and here the newlywed theme returns in a tragicomic key in the story of a couple who are very much in love. But the young husband is so pathologically jealous that he ends up “divorcing” his wife every night in a furious argument on the stairs, while their neighbors assemble to watch the show. Since the husband’s intent, pronounced in public, is all that is needed to cut the knot, they have to remarry each time he cools down. But after three times, Muslim law prescribes that the woman has to marry someone else before she can re-wed her first husband. And the midterm marriage has to be consummated. It will take most viewers time to wrap their heads around this bizarre idea, which everyone in the film accepts as completely normal — except for one character who rebels, revealing a crack in social-religious consensus.

This is also true for a rather dull story involving temporary marriage, a narrative device used in several recent Iranian films. The idea is that a couple can legally contract the right to have sex together in a convenient "marriage" that expires at a fixed time. A lovely, creative woman has lost her reputation by divorcing a husband her mother chose and she detested. But now that she’s single again, it’s permissible for her to carry on an affair with her fantasy lover, a married greengrocer named Abdullah, by playing the temporary marriage card. The episode limps along like TV comedy, never pushing the situation far enough into absurdity to hit the mark, and the introduction of a gay brother in Australia makes it seem improbably PC. 

Production companies: Razor Film Produktion, Sabbah Media

Cast:  Darine Hamze, Rodrigue Sleiman, Mirna Moukarzel, Zeinab Hind Khadra, Hussein Mokaddem, Ali Sammoury, Fadia Abi Chahine

Director-screenwriter: Assad Fouladkar

Producers: Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul, Sadek Sabbah

Executive producer: Lama Sabbah

Director of photography: Lutz Reitemeier

Production designers: Tania Arit, Maia Khoury

Costume designer: Claudia Torsiello

Editor: Nadia Ben Rachid

Music: Amine Bouhafa

Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Arabian Nights Gala)

Sales: Films Distribution  

In Arabic

Not rated, 94 minutes.