When Monaliza Smiled, And We Smiled Back

July 18, 2012

Written By: Naseem Tarawnah

A confession: it is incredibly difficult to objectively review a film that you feel personally close to; that you, some how, feel a part of.  And this is exactly what When Monaliza Smiled manages to successfully do for an Ammani moviegoer like me. It immerses you with the aesthetics of a familiar city, and soaks you in a myriad of cultural tidbits that only a Jordanian (or someone familiar with Jordan) would be able to truly appreciate. Whether it’s a young woman fending off the bombardment of demands for her to get married, or a shot of a typical government office building where mountains of folders camouflage a desk, while workers are busy gossiping and playing solitaire – all of this is just too familiar.  And it is that very sense of familiarity that draws you in; makes you feel like someone has simply made recognizable art out of everyday life, in the same way an average Jordanian sees an Abu Mahjoob caricature and instinctively chuckles and says: “true…that’s so, so true.”

Without giving too much away, the film tells the tale of a young Jordanian woman named Monaliza who falls in love with an Egyptian office boy, Hamdi. But to cast this as just another love story would be a mistake, for beyond the layers is a woman struggling to free herself from societal pressures, gain independence, escape an impoverished status quo, and find the kind of happiness that could finally draw a smile from her ordinarily resolute face. When a marriage proposal comes her way from an oafish neighbor, Monaliza finds herself teetering between wanting to avoid the union, while longing to be free from her older sister’s controlling decision making. She takes up a government job, and soon enough begins to have feelings for the office boy, Hamdi. As their seemingly improbable relationship takes shape, the story goes from dealing with stereotypes to the dynamics of an evolving romance, while a jigsaw puzzle of cultural influences permeate from the screen. Even the impact of Egypt’s golden era of cinema on Jordanians manages to find a place in the film, as Monaliza’s sense of romanticism comes straight out of the black and white love stories that reign supreme on her 21 inch TV screen.

And with Amman as its backdrop, the film does well to allow the city to blend organically in to the story rather than run the risk of being over-emphasized as past Jordanian productions have sought to do. We get to see characters climbing the spiraling steps that line the hills of the Capital, women dodging glances of neighbors, the tiny eateries tucked away mid-stairway, and the abandoned old cinemas of Amman. At one point, Monaliza and Hamdi take a bus ride through west Amman, starring wide-eyed at the neon lights of cafes filled with the affluent; a stark contrast to their more immediate surroundings.

Writer/Director Fadi Haddad and Producer Nadia Eliwat

Writer and director Fadi Haddad writes female characters with a rare kind of precision, while his comedic instincts manage to weave a genuinely funny thread that runs throughout the story. This is more than evident in the performances of the female cast, such as the exceptional performance of Haifa Al-Agha as Monaliza’s older sister, Afaf, who manages to be both serious and equally funny. However, there are times when the humor seems forced, with characters delivering predictable lines that come off as unmissable. Moreover, at times, the film’s production value begins to wane. Black and white clips that either detail a flashback, a dream or a fantasy, look and sound like they were shot on a green screen without the usual subtlety, and such scenes find their way eagerly in to the film one too many times. While the story does manage to hold together, it is littered with conflicts that left me half expecting the film’s central climax, but never finding it in the “right” place.

Nevertheless, for a film that was shot in four weeks and cost 120,000JDs, When Monaliza Smiled is an impressive first feature film for Haddad, and left me wondering what he’ll have in store for us next. The fact that a romantic comedy like this would emerge in the midst of a politically-charged region is a welcomed break. And while the story of two contrasting characters falling in love is universal enough, it is really the environment in which they live, and the societal and cultural forces that they deal with that make it worthwhile for a global audience, and a special delight for local viewers.

In a country whose people are often famous for their furrowed brows, the film manages to do the improbable, and make us smile.

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