A thwarted love affair plays out against the Israeli occupation of Gaza in tyro helmer Susan Youssef’s “Habibi,” a low-budget romancer with more heart than style. Youssef appropriates the verse of seventh century poet Qays ibn-al Mulawwah for the male protag, a student from the refugee camps whose class and relaxed religious affiliations make him persona non grata to his g.f.’s strict family. Zero chemistry between the couple, harsh digital quality and a clumsy handling of drama will relegate the pic to fests looking to showcase Arab women directors.
In the West Bank, Layla (Maisa Abdelhadi) and Qays (Kais Nashif, “Paradise Now”) are intellectual and spiritual soulmates, but when the Israelis revoke their student visas, the two return to Gaza. Layla’s traditional religious parents would rather marry her off to a successful suit than accept the proposal of a poet working a construction job, yet despite Layla’s desire to please her family, she can’t stay away from Qays. Side plots are poorly handled and over-obvious, such as the recruitment by Hamas agents of Layla’s brother Walid (Jihad Al-Khattib), and Youssef is unskilled in directing action scenes. Digital lensing lacks depth.