Showing the confusion, frustration, absurdity and coping mechanisms of life in contempo Ramallah through the eyes of a taxi driver, wry dramedy "Laila's Birthday" reps the best and most accessible work yet from Palestinian writer-director Rashid Masharawi ("Waiting," "Curfew.")

Showing the confusion, frustration, absurdity and coping mechanisms of life in contempo Ramallah through the eyes of a taxi driver, wry dramedy “Laila’s Birthday” reps the best and most accessible work yet from Palestinian writer-director Rashid Masharawi (“Waiting,” “Curfew.”) Sure to accumulate fest kudos, it’s strong political entertainment leavened with finely tooled irony. This briskly paced gem could sustain niche arthouse biz in some markets before seguing to ancillary.

In a place where an hour’s cab fare costs less than an hour on the Internet, financial considerations force former judge Abu Laila (Mohamed Bakri) to drive his brother-in-law’s cab for a living. A proud intellectual with a by-the-book sense of law and order, he’s constantly aggrieved by the chaos and lack of courtesy all around him.

Reminded by wife (Areen Omari) to be home early with a cake and present for their 7-year-old daughter (Nour Zoubi), Abu Laila sets off, as he does everyday, for the Ministry of Justice in hopes of returning to the judiciary. In spite of his faith in this particular government institution, ongoing changes in both minister and ministry result in the same answer: “Come back tomorrow.”

Over the remainder of the day, a series of passengers and their destinations further highlight internal Palestinian political divisions and persistent problems with Israel. Although symbolic of something more serious, these encounters feature sardonic dialogue and excellent comic timing.   

After being asked to put out his cigarette, a young male client (Saleh Bakri, son of star Mohamed) introduces himself as an ex-convict, to which Abu Laila replies, “Ex-judge. How did you pass the time?” “Smoking,” comes the answer.

In another pithy scene, a female customer spots a long queue of families waiting to receive aid and quickly jumps out to join it. Asking whether Fatah or Hamas is handing out supplies, the woman ahead of her replies, “I just saw the line and went into it.”

By the pic’s pitch-perfect ending, Abu Laila isn’t exactly ready to accept Allah’s justice over that created by man, but he’s become more skilled in the art of accommodation. As the old-school Everyman, Bakri is excellent, sadly registering every indignity until he finally can take it no more.

The realistic on-the-street lensing makes palpable the pandemonium that’s apt to interrupt the flow of daily life at any moment. Although no Israelis are depicted, their presence in the Occupied Territories casts an omnipresent pall, from the sound of patrolling helicopters and jets overhead to the sight of checkpoints and the Wall.

Laila's Birthday

Palestine-Tunisia-Netherlands

Production

A Cinema Production Center (Palestine)/CineTeleFilms (Tunisia)/Sweetwater Pictures, Fortissimo Films (Netherlands) production, in association with CTM Film, Balsafilms, Moroccan Cinematographic Center, CRM-114, supported by Fonds Sud Cinema, Ministere de la Culture et de la Communication-CNC, Ministere des Affaires Etrangeres France, Palestinian Television, Watanya Mobile. (International sales: Fortissimo Films, Amsterdam.) Produced by Mohamed Habib Attia, Peter van Vogelpoel, Rashid Masharawi. Co-producers, Wouter Barendrecht, Michael J. Werner. Directed, written by Rashid Masharawi.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Tarek Ben Abdallah, Nestor Sanz; editor, Pascale Chavance; music, Kais Sellami; production designer, Al'a Abu Ghosh; sound (Dolby Digital), Issa Qumsyeh, associate producers, Denis Wigman, Othmar Sweers, Nour-eddine Sail, Dimitri de Clerq. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 11, 2008. (Also in San Sebastian Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 71 MIN.

With

Mohamed Bakri, Areen Omari, Nour Zoubi, Saleh Bakri.

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