In “The Extras,” Syrian scripter/helmer Nabil Maleh delivers an often funny and ultimately devastating viewing experience propelled by two standout performances in the lead roles. This engaging account of a poor young couple who find peace away from prying eyes for the first time in their eight-month courtship will have its most powerful impact in Arabic-speaking countries, but also has potential for offshore arthouses.
Salem (Bassam Kousa), a pleasant fellow who stutters when nervous, works a full shift at a service station before attending rehearsals at Damascus’ National Theater, where he’s been an extra for five years. As his extended family lives in crushingly small quarters, he meets his girlfriend, Nada (Samar Sami) — a widow who sews in a factory and is kept on a tight leash by her tradition-minded brothers — only in public spots.
Salem’s bachelor friend has agreed to loan the lovebirds his apartment for two hours. Comic situations abound until Salem finally gets his benefactor out the door.
Tightly paced pic takes place entirely in the apartment, exploring the would-be lovers’ often justified paranoia via a punchy series of exchanges. These start with Nada’s arrival: When she removes her head scarf, Salem realizes that until now he has never seen his beloved’s hair.
Director Maleh creates an atmosphere of love and longing beset by anxiety. Salem’s p.o.v. is played out to good effect via mostly amusing fantasy sequences. Sound effects and incidental music mesh with the ever-shifting mood; photography and editing are effective. Aside from a few overly ominous chords, pic steers clear of cliche.
With four awards from three previous fests to its credit, pic played Montpellier the week it was banned by Syria’s censors. They reportedly petitioned for the return of the print, but a subsequent screening at the London Film Festival in mid-November went ahead as planned.