Thursday, July 29, 2010
Captain Abu Raed (2008) is reportedly an attempt to make a Jordanian Charlie Chaplin movie. Making a Chaplin movie without Chaplin is always a bad idea. Chaplin was the greatest actor in the movies, a brilliant multi-faceted performer. He did not craft great stories or invent original situations. His stories are poorly constructed and grotesquely sentimental at the core, which is some of the problem with Captain Abu Raed.
The first 30 minutes of the film are completely enchanting and will make you love the city of Amman and the Jordanian people and impress you with the compositional talents of the film's writer-director, Amin Matalqa. After that, the inability to spin a compelling story does in both the charm of the leading actor, Nadim Sawalha and the fine cinematography of Reinhart Peschke.
Abu Raed is an airport janitor who wears a discarded captain's hat home. When the children in his impoverished neighborhood spot him, he adopts the identity of a airline captain and spins marvelous tales for the children, creating an oasis of fantasy and imagination from their harsh urban life. So far, we have Danny Kaye in Hans Christian Andersen (both characters are practically sexless). Then Abu Raed tries to rescue a boy from beatings administered by his drunken father. But the plan backfires. He rats out the father, the cops come, everything is covered up, Abu freaks, but THEN...nothing happens. This bad-guy father never visits any reprisals on the son. You can't have your bad guy refuse to do bad stuff--that's just bad story telling.
Then Abu makes a plan for the mother and children to escape from the father. But...they successfully escape!! Yes--no complications, no difficulties, no story twists. A man makes a plan and then executes it. That's a story?
There's a tentative relationship with a young woman who is an airline pilot, but I have no idea what it means, since there are huge differences in age and class between her and Abu--he simply is an unimaginable suitor in this society.
How would this be different if Chaplin were in it? Well, first of all there would have been some slapstick complications in the rescue and much comedy of embarrassment in the scenes with the young woman. There would have been a powerful bond between man and boy, as seen in Chaplin's The Kid and a profound sense of longing for missed opportunities, as in the dazzling final shot of The Circus.
Look--if you're going to make a Chaplin movie, you better damn well have a Chaplin at the center of it. Otherwise, you've just got goo.
Incidentally, here's Chaplin in The Kid with what appear to be, appropriately, Arabic titles below the English titles: