Not as racy as the English-language title suggests with its coy parentheses, the Beirut-set satire “Halal Love (and Sex)” is a brightly assembled, pleasantly diverting sophomore feature from the Lebanon-born, Egypt-based writer-helmer Assad Fouladkar (“When Maryam Spoke Out”). Made with obvious affection for his characters and former hometown, it consists of three interconnected tales that center on ordinary folks and their struggles with the titular matters in the context of what is permissible under Islamic law. While the comedy is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, the gentle guffaws it generates also provide insight into how real people deal with challenges of faith and desire. Fests will definitely want to get in bed with this one, with niche distribution likely in some territories.
The up-tempo opening episode set at an all-girls school during a sex-education class offers perhaps the most amusing scene. “How are children made?” asks the fierce, bespectacled teacher. The answer she provides to her embarrassed, grimacing charges winds up traumatizing her student Hiba (Berlin Badr) and Hiba’s younger sister, Nasma (Christy Bared.)
At the same time, the sisters’ beleaguered and exhausted mother, the overbearing housewife Awatef (Mirna Moukarzel), casts about for some way that she could avoid the nightly attentions of her loving husband, Salim (Ali Sammoury). She decides to find him a second wife, since Islam allows him four. But after “Bardot” (Fadia Abi Chahine) smoothly integrates into the family, Awatef has second thoughts.
Meanwhile, across the hall live the warring newlyweds, sultry Batoul (Zeinab Hind Khadra) and suspicious Mokhtar (Hussein Mokaddem). Mokhtar’s paranoid jealously periodically sparks screaming battles that spill out into the building lobby, much to the bemusement of the other residents. But Mukhtar fails to consider the consequences of saying “I divorce you” one time too many, and the pair must obey the strictures imposed by religious law if they want to marry again.
Should a divorced woman return to live at her parents’ home? Some may say so, but when glamorous seamstress Loubna (Darine Hamze) finally gets her divorce papers, she feels entitled to try a temporary marriage to Abu Ahmed (Rodrigue Sleiman), the handsome greengrocer whose long-ago proposal was nixed by her family. While temporary marriage is often criticized as something that takes advantage of women, here it works to Loubna’s benefit. “You were much more inspiring to me as a dream than you are now as a real person” she tells him after their term expires.
Given that writer-director Fouladkar has eight seasons of Egypt’s most popular sitcom “A Man and Six Women” under his belt, it’s not surprising that “Halal Love” sometimes feels like high-end television farce, particularly in the interior scenes. But what gives the pic a cinematic feel and allows it to breathe are the snippets of Beirut glimpsed between the action. He captures a city that looks different from that we’ve seen in innumerable war dramas: Here is a working capital with run-down high-rises and a crazy web of electric wires, streets filled working-class hustle and bustle, vendors selling fruits and vegetables, baskets lowered from windows to be filled with groceries, and terraces and roofs shadowed by drying laundry.
The lively ensemble cast seems entirely in tune with the helmer’s intention; they play broadly but smartly rather than insufferably so. The colorful, intelligently detailed production design also supports the helmer’s intent of a visual mirroring of the theme of pulling back the veil from people’s private lives. German d.p. Lutz Reitemeier’s observant lensing, Amine Bouhafa’s jaunty but not overused score and Nadia Ben Rachid’s pacey cutting lead the good-looking tech package.