The tale of an elderly airport janitor mistaken for a glamorous international pilot by his working-class neighborhood kids, “Captain Abu Raed” is a straightforward heart-tugging melodrama that, while safe and conventional, is likable in numerous ways. Although highly evocative of its Amman setting, this first feature from Jordanian-born, American-educated writer-director Amin Matalqa feels more like an old-fashioned Italian or French picture in emotional tenor, and as such holds considerable appeal as a specialized release in European and North American markets. Pic won the audience award in the world cinema competition at Sundance after copping actor honors at the Dubai fest.
Touted as the first “independent” Jordanian feature, the production was, in fact, financed by various international sources, and engaged the services of collaborators from numerous nations. Production values are far more First World than Third, and the story steers clear of politics or pressing topical issues, a decision that well serves the film’s aim of hitting universal notes.
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Stocky graybeard Abu Raed (London-based thesp Nadim Sawalha) is a lonely, childless widower who lives in a modest apartment with the bonus of a terrace that offers a sweeping view of Amman. On the job one day, he finds an airline captain’s hat in the garbage, wears it home and is taken by local boy Tareq (Udey Al-Qiddissi) to be a pilot.
Next morning, a gaggle of kids turns up requesting tales of far-off places and, after some hesitation, Abu Raed obliges, reaching into his own fantasies of a life he never led. Whole initial section feels like an Italo film of a certain vintage, with cute urchins prodding an old-timer to lift them out of the mundane.
Main story is intersected by the comings and goings of Nour (Jordanian TV host Rana Sultan in an easygoing thesping debut), an attractive, thirtysomething flight attendant whose experiences in Paris, New York and everywhere else provide fodder for the old gent’s yarns. Nour’s wealthy parents are forever on her about when she’s going to get married, with her nagging, matchmaking father coming off like a male, Arab Ruth Gordon.
One mean-spirited kid, Murad (Hussein Al-Sous), is on to Abu Raed’s ruse and, at about the film’s midway point, spoils it for everyone by exposing their hero scrubbing the airport floor. By this time, however, Abu Raed has become so invested in his young friends’ lives that he begins meddling to try to improve their lot; Tareq is being forced by his father to abandon school and take charge of a kiosk full-time, while Murad’s father is an alcoholic with an increasingly violent streak.
Latter subplot is sheerest soap opera, with all scenes pitched toward hysteria. Nonetheless, Abu Raed’s well-meaning but delicate position amid others’ family squabbles creates some genuine tension, and most mainstream viewers, as opposed to art-film types, will long since have developed emotional concern for the title character and his charges.
Sawalha invests dignity and humor in his simple character, who cannot resist trying to help others in need. The kids are fine, although adult supporting players tend to overact.
One of the film’s most welcome achievements is its casually diverse portrait of Amman, rarely seen in cinema. In an everyday, non-touristic way, the pic provides a strong impression of many districts across various economic strata. Lensing by German d.p. Reinhart Peschke boosts the tale’s different moods, while Yank composer Austin Wintory’s sweeping orchestral score continually ups the emotional ante.
Although this is not really like a Truffaut film, despite the presence of the kids, Matalqa tips his cap to one of his heroes by rather awkwardly naming a French character Francois Trauffu.