I watched the screening of “When Monaliza Smiled”, a Jordanian romantic comedy, at the RFC yesterday. I have heard a lot about this movie, but I didn’t know what to expect, I am not one for romantic comedies after all. But wow. It was hard to stop laughing all throughout.
“When Monaliza Smiled” introduces us to Monaliza, a simple Jordanian woman in her late 30’s, just starting in job in a naturally-defunct public department. As she is introduced to her new colleague, the stereotypical Jordanian “army wife” (ha! can I laugh at my own joke?), the Egyptian office boy, Hamdi, walks in with a tray of Turkish coffee.
Director Fadi Hadddad has the audience run up and down the stairs of Amman as Hamdi and Monaliza fall in love through the city’s ancient cinemas and kushari restaurants; through immigration issues and racism; through a harshly judgmental society that gives no one a break. The jokes came from a plot that saw a a stereotypically-jokey Egyptian man attempt to bring a smile to the face of a jaded Ammani woman.
“When Monaliza Smiled” managed to capture something that very few creative initiatives in Jordan manage to. Although the movie is happy and fluffy, it is still rough around the edges, and for that, I tip my hat. Amman, after all, is a rough place; socially, culturally, politically, and even visually. I think it’s this quality of embracing our tough-as-rock reality as a people that makes things successful in Jordan; Jo Bedu, Turtle Green, Yazan Roussan. No frills around the edges.
In the case of this movie, the introduction of humor and lightness via an Egyptian element was sheer genius. Since there aren’t many preexisting Jordanian precedents to “When Monaliza Smiled”, the Egyptian humor, style, and looks in both Hamdi — the love interest — and the old Egyptian movie clips used abundantly in the movie so much more believable.
Visually, the movie is a feast. The clever lines and themes of immigration and suffocating societal expectations are beautifully complemented by the pastel-coloured alleyways of East Amman and the “Ayat Al-Kursi” wall pieces that you find in almost every single Muslim household in Jordan. The art department should be very proud of their work.
Yet, it was the fact that the movie didn’t fall into the cliché of starring Amman’s sweeping hills that had most power. I don’t think there was a single sweeping-hill camera pan, actually. The visual language instead celebrated what individual people add to the city; as random, chaotic and kitschy as it may be. The kitchen in the governmental organization setting, with the potted flowers over the window sill, was a much more powerful emotional element than all the jeweled mountains of Amman. I was constantly touched during the movie because I kept seeing my grandmother making us candied apples, my aunt sewing on her Singer sewing machine, and our neighborhood’s dokaneh.
I felt bliss during much of “When Monaliza Smile”. It’s the telling of the comedic casualness of the hopelessness of our lives (it took Monaliza 37 years to “wake up”), the complacency, the shrug. You’ll find yourself believing that a hopeful spirit can triumph over the demanding societal expectations of being Ammani, and that Kushari can make wishes come true.
“When Monaliza Smiled” stars Tahani Salim, Shady Khalaf, Haifa Al Agha, Nadera Omran, Fuad Shomali, Suha Najjar, Haidar Kfouf. Written and directed by Fadi G. Haddad. Produced by Nadia Eliewat. Executive Producer Nadine Toukan. Music from the film’s soundtrack, composed by Dr. Najati Suloh, with Maestro Aziz Maraka, Director of Photography Samer Nimri. Production Designer Amjad Al Rasheed. Art Director Rand AbdelNoor. Sound Supervisor Falah Hannoun. Produced through the support of the education feature film program of the Royal Film Commission-Jordan. Filmed on location in Amman, Jordan
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