The clueless residents of a tiny Lebanese village begin to suspect there’s an angel in their midst in “Ghadi,” a gently barbed, sentimentally played social satire whose familiar tale of overcoming bigotry, pettiness and greed could work in just about any insular small-town context. Conceived in a fanciful comedy-with-a-social-conscience vein that Frank Capra might well have appreciated, this debut feature for director Amin Dora and scribe Georges Khabbaz may be as simple-minded as the characters it scrutinizes and finds wanting. But it demonstrates a deft, winning touch all the same — no mean feat, given a central conceit that skirts the boundaries of good taste and miraculously walks away unscathed. Selected to represent Lebanon in the upcoming foreign-language Oscar race (it was initially chosen last year but opened too late at home to qualify), this modest crowdpleaser should easily charm its way into festivals, particularly Arab showcases looking for levity.
A Lebanese actor-playwright who previously starred in Philippe Aractingi’s war drama “Under the Bombs” (2007), Khabbaz plays a bearded, bespectacled husband and father named Leba Seba, who introduces his hometown of El Mshakkal as the sort of quaint backwater that thrives and festers on gossip, a place where everyone knows everyone’s business and almost every man is named some variant of Elias. As Leba recalls in voiceover-heavy flashbacks, his own childhood was a difficult one; although smarter and more sensitive than most of his neighbors, he was teased mercilessly for his stuttering habit. But that changed with the arrival of a gifted pianist, Mr. Fawzi (Antoine Moultaka), who helped Leba overcome his impediment by teaching him to play and appreciate music, and also to understand the uniquely important role played by those often deemed weak or unfit by society at large.
Years later, Mr. Fawzi’s advice will resonate in highly unexpected ways when Leba and his wife, Lara (Lara Rain), after raising two girls, welcome a baby boy, Ghadi (Emmanuel Khairallah), who has Down syndrome. Like his father before him, Ghadi likes to position himself at his open window, which overlooks the entire town; unlike his father, however, Ghadi is prone to making loud, uncontrollable noises that can be heard by everyone down below, to the point where he’s eventually classified as a major disturbance. Soon the villagers sign a petition to have the boy institutionalized — or, barring that, to have the Seba family kicked out of El Mshakkal altogether. But Leba soon hits upon a way to turn his neighbors’ narrow-mindedness against them, by planting the suggestion that Ghadi’s incessant wailing might, in fact, be the hand of God at work.
With more affection than acid, Dora and Khabbaz have assembled a gaggle of provincial stereotypes — there’s the nosy butcher, the penny-pinching barber, the belligerent old shrew still pining for her long-lost love. Yet rather than turning individual characters into punching bags, the filmmakers target the stifling atmosphere of conformity in a place where it’s impossible to escape anyone’s watchful, judgmental eye, and where life itself has become pointlessly ritualized. One amusing sequence shows how even Leba and Lara’s healthy, committed marriage is affected by external pressures, their dutiful lovemaking sessions a response to their neighbors’ increasingly pushy demands that they have children — and not just children, but boys in particular.
A rigid and oppressive patriarchy is but one of the many targets that come under attack here, as the town’s cruel, unthinking rejection of one of its own becomes a jumping-off point for the exploration of any number of social ills, among them class snobbery, cronyism, religious intolerance and domestic violence. Yet the pleasure and saving grace of “Ghadi” is that, even as it takes its characters to task for their various sins — all of which are neatly pointed out for the viewer, rather than dramatized in any trenchant or meaningful fashion — it never does so at the expense of its impish, mischievous sense of fun. The film’s playful spirit becomes downright infectious once Leba recruits a few sympathetic villagers, particularly his principled young ally Lello (Samir Youssef), to help him carry out his increasingly elaborate, high-tech and at times genuinely altruistic deception.
It’s all so breezily and enjoyably handled that it almost feels churlish to note that Ghadi himself never becomes a particularly individuated character so much as a device meant to produce either alienation or awe at any given moment. Similarly, one could argue for or against the way the filmmakers present Ghadi as some sort of faux higher being, complete with feathery wings and celestial backlighting: Have they fallen into the trap of sentimentalizing the mentally disabled, or are they rather successfully critiquing that very tendency? Either way, Dora and Khabbaz have delivered a sly and absorbing comedy whose particular resonance for Arab viewers (particularly fans of the fledgling Lebanese filmmaking industry) never undercuts its essential appeal to a potentially broad array of audiences.
Holding it all together is Khabbaz’s wonderfully subdued performance as a guy who’s as surprised as anyone to find himself playing the town conscience, a family man whose patient, pleasant nature conceals a razor-sharp mind. Other performances are fine across the board, though given the film’s gender concerns, one wishes that Rain had been given more to do in the deliberately underwritten role of Leba’s wife, whose own taciturn nature is meant to be a principled stance in a town where everyone talks too much. The strong low-budget tech package is distinguished by Karim Ghorayeb’s cinematography, which artfully navigates the balconies and rooftops of the fictional El Mshakkal, while several Mozart compositions add classy counterpoint to the film’s dense tapestry of cacophonous voices.