Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hats off to Captain Abu Raed

Captain Abu Raed - A brilliant performance by Nadim Sawalha in the title role anchors a moving debut from Director/Writer/Producer Amin Matalqua. Captain Abu Raed is a lonely airport janitor who lives in a world of books and imaginary travel. Raed claims a discarded pilot's cap from the airport trash and is suddenly thrust into a relationship with the children of his working class neighborhood in East Amman, Jordan. The kids assume he's a real pilot and demand to hear stories of his travels. Raed obliges, and his fiction is a hit. Suddenly the loner is the neighborhood grandfather, trying to keep young Tareq in school when his father puts him to work as a street vendor. Another boy, the angry Murad, calls Raed a liar, since no pilot could come from their neighborhood. Raed accepts his insults with grace, knowing that Murad and his family are victims of violent abuse from their father.

At the airport, Raed is befriended by Nour, a glamorous pilot in her thirties. Nour is happy to find one literate friend who isn't lecturing her about turning into a spinster or fixing her up with social basket cases. Raed is thrilled, but a little overwhelmed, as the new friendships with the children and Nour open up memories of his late wife and child and a life lost to grief and guilt over the infant's accidental death.

Murad leads some of the boys on an expedition to the airport, exposing Raed as a janitor. Raed reacts with more kindness, giving Murad the pilot's cap, and continues to worry about the neighborhood children, even when they no longer listen to his stories. The focus shifts from Tareq to Murad as the father's violence escalates and Raed's efforts to save Murad and his family from disaster become bolder.

Amin Matalqua starts his feature film career with a bang. Captain Abu Raeb works effectively with limited dialog. Visual elements - the jaunty pilot cap, the long flights of steps leading to Raed's lonely lair, his collection of books and souvenirs, the place set for his dead wife and the memorial on her pillow next to the sleeping Raed, the forbidding door to Murad's home, a hand flexed into a rising aerofoil - connect the viewer so firmly to the development of plot and character that the subtitles seem almost superfluous. Amman offers a fresh background, rich in color and texture. Matalqua made a host of good decisions in bringing this story to the screen, but one casting choice stands out: Nadim Sawalha was unforgettable as Captain Abu Raed. Sawalha was in almost every scene, working mostly with untrained child actors. The role was complex and absolutely pivotal to the film's success. Sawalha knocked it out of the park, and he did it with his eyes, shoulders, hands and, once in a while, even some dialog. Mr. Sawalha will look familiar from a hundred small roles, but after this film you will remember his name.

Captain Abu Raed has a few problems. All three subplots revolve around leisurely character development that becomes a little too slow. When Matalqua finally does bring on the action, it seems jarring and forced. The ending was true enough to Raed's character to survive this pacing disconnect and on balance As Good As News agrees with Sundance, where Captain Abu Raed won the Audience Award. See this film, watch for future efforts from Mr. Matalqua and hope that Mr. Sawalha gets many more major roles.

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