After putting the finishing touches on a cockroach I was illustrating for a poster I realized that I had to head out to the Royal Film Commission’ Filmhouse. It was almost eight o’clock. I was running late. Still, I went on foot; it was a great evening for a walk in Rainbow Street. When I saw Nadine Toukan in the street I felt good as it meant they still haven’t started screening When Monaliza Smiled, the latest feature length film by Fadi G. Haddad, produced by the RFC, Nadia Eliwat and Toukan.
This was one film I did not want to miss. I don’t know why! Call it a gut feeling. I quickly spied a seat close to the screen. It was anything from a private screening. The place was packed with a lot of familiar faces but I was no longer in the mood to be familiar.
The moment the funny and unexpected prologue of When Monaliza Smiled ended and the audience and I found ourselves in a modern day Amman, where a shy woman who goes by the name Monaliza lives, I realized this is going to be an enjoyable piece of cinema.
This was a few weeks ago.
Tonight I decided it was time to express my love for this beautifully made film with a blog post/review that I was supposed to write directly after the screening.
What happened? Upon returning home I found myself illustrating a minimal poster that came to my mind halfway through the film and that I finished the following day. The poster that you see in this blog post is my way of showing how much I loved When Monaliza Smiled. Anything that inspires you to produce a visual or written statement is good and this romantic comedy is beyond good.
To say Haddad’s film will teach us, Jordanians, how to smile is a naive statement. We know how to smile but we don’t smile as often as we should and you can thank our esteemed Jordanian government for that. My statement will probably come out as naive too but When Monaliza Smiled celebrates life and is in a way Haddad’s Cinema Paradiso.
I say Cinema Paradiso because every single frame, piece of dialogue, character behavior and plot twist reveals Haddad’s passion for cinema especially in the more fantastical moments that unfold in When Monaliza Smiled.
This Jordanian feature film celebrates the breaking of the inane social norms that govern our lives; it celebrates coexistence; it celebrates compassion; it celebrates humor; and it does all this as it tears down racial prejudice; religious prejudice, and most important of all the thunderous hallow figures of authority and power.
Haddad writes real people and the characters in his film are as real as it gets. Other characters in his film are a balance of reality and cliched stereotypes like the Armenian photographer. The moment Haddad told me in an e-mail that there was an Armenian photographer character I told him, “Hope you didn’t go for the cliched Ana/Inti typecasting of Armenians ;-})”
“Actually it is the stererotype ana/enti armenian dude. Lol! But it is intentional the whole film kinda plays around stereotypes. That is somehow the point of the film. I hope that doesn’t offend the Armenian community! :S” he replied back.
Well it didn’t offend this Armenian. Funnily it made me proud because it was a bold statement reminding the world that photography in Jordan was pioneered by my ancestors, and Haddad paid homage to that. My grandfather and father are photographers who spent their lives capturing faces and moments in time at Photo Paramount, a photography studio that used to exist between Jabri and Al Qudus restaurant.
Watching how that poor photographer (Nabil Koni) tried to make the mild mannered Monaliza (Tahani Salim) smile took back me to how my father used to position the faces of people in his studio, asking them to reveal their set of pearls, sometimes to no avail.
Plus Haddad wrote some cliched Jordanian stereotypes like the governmental employee, Nayfeh (an amazing Nadera Omran), who is very real and gives other hardworking government employees their bad reputation.
A good comedian pokes fun at himself and this is what Haddad did as a filmmaker; he placed a magnifying glass on a large section of our society; on us.
Eliwat, the producer, asked anyone who will be writing about their film not to give away important plotlines so in short and not wanting to spoil the film that is slated for commercial distribution here is the synopsis that you will find on the Facebook page, “WHEN MONALIZA SMILED is a romantic comedy about a love story between Jordanian Monaliza, and Egyptian Hamdi, set in present day Amman among a community of nosy stereotypes and quirky characters.”
The writing and dialogue is natural like something you overhear in a bus heading to Abu Nsair or in a traditional restaurant in Down Town Amman. The acting is fluid thanks to a good casting call. There isn’t a single miscast actor or actress in this film.
Shady Khalaf as Hamdi gives a brilliant powerful performance as the Egyptian underdog, who is struggling to make a living in Jordan. Through Hamdi’s character Haddad sheds light on an issue that is seldom tackled on screen or in news reports and which is the lives of Egyptian citizens in our country.
Haifa AlAgha as Afaf, the overprotective sister of Monaliza, gave out a sincere performance that bordered on psychosis. Suha Najjar, who played the neighborhood’s foxy lady Rodayna, boldly reminded us why we should never judge a book by its cover or in the case of Homo sapiens a human by its skin.
Tahani Salim’s Monaliza characterization was fun to watch especially with her awkward disposition and inability to smile. Creating a central character who is unable to smile even though her name is synonymous with the act of smiling and putting that character through a series of circumstances, one of which is the Jordanian society, and that are beyond her control like falling in love was brilliant.
Fuad Al Shomali, who zealously played the role of Abu Sara, Monaliza’s work supervisor, at the end of the screening said that “Fadi had a beautiful eye and knows what he wants with every scene.” He was 100 percent correct and Samer Al Nemri’s cinematography most certainly had something to do with that.
The color tints were delicious and fresh giving the film a dream-like sequence quality that was accentuated by the score. When Monaliza Smiled is a happy film and it will make you feel happy as films should at times.
What is left to say about this lovely piece of Jordanian cinema I will say to Fadi G. Haddad sounding like a cliched Armenian character in a celluloid world: Fadi G. Haddad Inti Wahda Shatra!
Bravo to you and to everyone who worked on this piece of cinema that won’t be forgotten long after the credits rolled.