How does a man who believes in law and civility keep his dignity when living in utter chaos? Writer-director Rashid Masharawi gets past the political posturing of many Palestinian films to show a side of Israeli-occupied Ramallah that is unfamiliar to most outsiders. Not only are the white stone buildings, green hills and urban vibrancy — all beautifully shot — a far cry from the images of bombed-out destruction typically fed to the media, the ordinary citizens in this politically charged landscape are, well, ordinary.
Abu Laila (Mohamed Bakri) is a decent, if uptight man. A former judge, he has been forced to drive a taxi for his brother-in-law to make ends meet. While he never loses faith that one day he'll return to his job at the Ministry of Justice, where a revolving-door group of senior bureaucrats are more concerned with replacing the curtains in their offices than attending to the courts.
Offering a front seat tour of Abu Laila's day, one filled with endless frustrations and annoyances, Masharawi takes the pulse of a city struggling under occupancy and chaotic self-rule. Abu Laila, who can barely contain his outrage and exasperation, falls victim to the casual absurdities of Ramallah's malfunctioning society, where something as simple as turning a lost cell phone in to the police can result in hours of bureaucratic detention. The eccentric, tragic or hapless passengers who stumble into his cab — thwarting his attempts to buy a birthday present for his young daughter, Laila — are equally vexing. An old woman can't decide whether to visit the cemetery or hospital first. A jovial man with a machine gun mocks Abu Laila for refusing him service. A cop pulls the cabbie over then offers to buy his cab. Life, in all its turmoil, folly, pettiness and surprising decency, imposes itself on this man who desires only order and civility.
Though Laila's Birthday is never laugh-out-loud funny, Masharawi is a keen and critical observer, a humanist with a wicked wit. In a particularly sly scene, Palestinians at a café argue over whether the military action they are watching on TV is the work of Israeli soldiers, their own police force or Americans in Iraq. It's the kind of clever but subtle commentary that makes his dark-humored love letter to urban tumult resonate well beyond it's brief 72-minute running time.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237) at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 30-31, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 1.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].