Precise lensing, a strong sense of locale and vibrant, eminently likeable perfs enliven “Arranged,” a Brooklyn fable about the parallel destinies of two female friends, one an Orthodox Jewess and the other a traditional Muslim. Pic’s relaxed pacing and organic development carry it through the preachier patches, while distaff leads prove a pure pleasure to watch as they meet prospective grooms for arranged marriages. Though the secular world gets short shrift, helmers Diane Crespo and Stefan C. Schaefer treat religious insularism with an engagingly light touch. Pic, opening today at Gotham’s Quad, could carve out an urban niche.
Pic’s dually focuses on thoughtful, intelligent, slightly neurotic Rochel (Zoe Lister-Jones) and sunny, serenely upbeat Nasira (Francis Benhamou), both starting careers as fourth-grade teachers at a public school in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn. The women, who have embraced the religious customs under which they were raised, soon find they have more in common with each other than with their flighty, worldly colleagues.
Both dress unusually — Nasira in a headscarf, Rochel in long skirts and buttoned-up blouses — and both find themselves under friendly fire from their officious secular Jewish principal (Marcia Jean Kurtz) who urges them to “liberate” themselves. Plus both have just been launched by their respective families on formal quests for husbands.
Nasira’s matrimonial prospects, handpicked by her traditional but loving father (Laith Nakli), begin with a disaster, as a cousinly candidate arriving from Syria turns out to possess few table manners and fewer teeth. The prearranged courtships take a definite turn for the better, however, when a most simpatico computer engineer is introduced to Nasira.
Rochel, who functions as film’s main center (not surprisingly, since pic’s loosely autobiographical story was supplied by her real-life equivalent), faces a rocky road as a sorry bunch of social misfits are paraded before her, from a painfully shy suitor, whose inability to complete sentences is matched only by his Ichabod Crane-type body language, to a confident self-promoter, who arrogantly takes possession of all spaces and conversations.
These dates from hell, though generally satisfyingly amusing, lack the control and justness of tone that characterize the pic’s subtler comedic moments; the helmers appear less sure-handed with broad comedy than with gentle ironies.
The broad depictions of the secular world are similarly skewed from uncertain points-of-view. Rochel, despairing of ever meeting a suitable mate and pushed beyond endurance by her well-meaning worrier of a mother (Mimi Lieber), takes refuge with a female cousin who has left the Orthodox community. Rochel accompanies her to a party, where she is prodded to partake in officially prohibited activities from handshakes to smoking marijuana.
The shared experience of directors Crespo and Schaefer, who worked together making documentaries, infuses “Arranged” with a rare equanimity, a quality signally absent from Schaefer’s solo fiction debut “Confess,” and a feeling greatly enhanced by Lister-Jones’ and Benhamou’s splendidly natural performances.
Dan Hersey’s casually intimate HD lensing nicely captures the characters in everyday environments without artificially billboarding them.