When veteran Emirati director and screenwriter Jamal Salem announced last year that his latest directorial effort, Awar Qalb (Heart Ache), will examine the challenges of the Arab marriage process, anticipation was relatively high.
However, while Awar Qalb does provide welcome social commentary, the film's light touch ultimately robs it of any conviction.
It starts promisingly enough: the main character Zaid (Abdulla Zaid) narrates how he got locked up after an online altercation with a woman who spurned his advances: “I used all my 6GB of data in insulting her,” he admits, ruefully.
Bailed out by friend and fellow bachelor Joma (Joma Ali), he rushes to his ailing uncle in hospital who dangles a Dh9 million inheritance in front of him which will only be bequeathed once he gets married.
It seems like a simple idea but Zaid is not that easy to get along with. The former “Don Juan of the classroom” has become a craggy 40-something civil servant who, throughout the film, peppers his narration with anti-romantic analogies such as, “Two things you can’t find in life: a good woman and a red watermelon”, and “a woman is like a BMW. It is tough and authentic but the spare parts are expensive.” That said, buoyed by the financial boost on offer, he and Joma embark on a wide-ranging mission – from Abu Dhabi and Al Ain to Marrakesh – to find Ms Right.
It is in Zaid’s interactions with marriage candidates that the film elevates above bad ’90’s rom-com material. Each prospective partner represents a different facet of Arabic youth culture: There is Khadija (Khadija Sleiman), an exuberant and career-driven woman who is a manager at Skydive Dubai; and then there is the refined Neven who is looking for a man in touch with his feelings. Both women challenge Zaid’s views of what an Arab marriage should be.
While denouncing the lifeless marriages of friends, Zaid is spooked by Khadija’s active lifestyle which involves frequent parachuting and motorcycle rides. When it comes to Neven (Neven Madi) he is encouraged by her homely nature but flustered by her demands that he is more emotionally expressive: “what does she want from me? My head is about to explode” he says, exasperatedly.
Families are also put under the microscope, particularly the exorbitant prices grooms pay in marriage alms. In one winning scene, Joma asks a prospective father if he can “offer a discount”, much to his dismay.
While Salem certainly created a strong set of characters, Awar Qalb ultimately falls flat due to his insistence to play for the crowd. The film is full of trite comedic set pieces ranging from the old slapstick chestnuts of Zaid and Joma trying to fit through a door to old-school regional gags of throwing sandals in disgust – they were simply unnecessary. If Salem had stuck more to his guns, he would have had a smart and timely feature.
Awar Qalb is showing now in cinemas