World premiere review: Regional race tensions play out in Lebanese comedy Solitaire

The personal prejudices spewing from the Middle East’s political turmoils form the backdrop of Mahbas (Solitaire), a tragicomic tale of the engagement-gone-wrong between a young Lebanese woman and her Syrian suitor.

A still from Solitaire. Courtesy Dubai International Film Festival
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Mahbas (Solitaire)

Director: Sophie Boutros

Starring: Julia Kassar, Ali El Khalil, Bassam Koussa, Nadine Khoury, Betty Taoutel, Jaber Jokhadar, Serena Chami, Said Serhan

Three stars

The personal prejudices spewing from the Middle East's political turmoils form the backdrop of Mahbas (Solitaire), a tragicomic tale of the engagement-gone-wrong between a young Lebanese woman and her Syrian suitor – which makes its world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival tonight (December 11).

Playing out an intergenerational rift, it is fitting the film’s young lovers met earlier as family-free expats in the UAE, where first-time director Sophie Boutros is a manager at American University in Dubai. But the subject here is a formal visit from Samer and his parents to the provincial Lebanese village home of sweetheart Ghada, to ask for her hand in marriage.

Haunted by the memory of her brother – who died 20 years ago at the hands of a Syrian bomb – the bride-to-be’s mother Therese (Julia Kassar) is unashamedly racist towards her regional neighbours, a fact exacerbated by the recent refugee crisis, which has displaced more than 1.5 million Syrians into Lebanon’s 4.5 million population.

At the movie’s outset, Therese spits out pickles made by refugees and snaps off the radio at the hint of a Syrian melody. What she does not know – due to a piece of absurd duplicity on the part of her husband Maurice, a philandering big-fish-small-pond town mayor – is that a Syrian family is about to arrive on her doorstep. And ask for her daughter’s hand.

Played with gusto by Julia Kassar (Tramontane), Therese's Machiavellian flair takes the movie into increasingly farcical, turns as she makes outlandish attempts to thwart the union. The awkward encounter is lent extra comic relief with a scene-stealing turn from Lebanese TV star Betty Taoutel, cast as quirky neighbour Solange.

The couple themselves – played earnestly by Jaber Jokhadar and a debut role from Serena Chami – are suffocated by their elders, helpless as race and class tensions play out broadly onscreen. While the two fathers clumsily attempt to build bridges with good-natured pomp, decades-old resentments sizzle between the two women.

“You know what Lebanese girls are like,” sniffs Samer’s mother when Ghada’s mechanic ex-boyfriend mysteriously shows up for lunch, at Therese’s instigation.

This lengthy, dinner table scene forms the movie’s claustrophobic centrepiece – the tension and humour steadily ramped, with mature pacing, until an inevitable emotional explosion moves the movie forward to it’s final third.

The same can’t quite be said of this closing furlong, where the mood darkens and proceedings take increasingly melodramatic turns. But the concluding message of tolerance is not overstated, and not quite everything wraps happily ever after.

The growing trend for Lebanese comedies (Ghadi, Halal Love) has played out well to international audiences – and ably balancing warm-hearted laughs with timely social insight, Solitaire deserves to follow recent regional successes onto the festival circuit.

Mahbas (Solitaire) receives its world premiere with a gala screening at DIFF on Sunday December 11, 6pm, at Madinat Arena, and screens again as part of the festival on Wednesday December 14, 2.30pm, at Mall of the Emirates.