The Movie Waffler Tribeca Film Festival 2024 Review - ARZÉ | The Movie Waffler

Tribeca Film Festival 2024 Review - ARZÉ

Arzé review
A mother negotiates a divided Beirut as she searches for her stolen scooter.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Mira Shaib

Starring: Diamand Abou Abboud, Bilal Al Hamwi, Betty Taoutel

Arzé poster

Mira Shaib's Arzé does little to hide the fact that it's heavily influenced by Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. The plot of that classic of Italian Neo-Realism, which sees a father and son traverse post-war Rome in search of the stolen bicycle the former needs to carry out his job, is transferred here to 2019 Beirut and the bicycle is swapped for a motor-scooter. Shaib is by no means the first filmmaker to deliver a quasi-remake of De Sica's film, to which practically every drama that involves a protagonist scrabbling for money in a constricted time frame owes a debt - but she is perhaps the most blatant. Far from gritty drama however, Shaib and her writers Louay Khraish and Faissal Sam Shaib have kneaded this idea into a rather light and breezy comedy.

Arzé review

The eponymous Arzé (Diamand Abou Abboud) is a 34-year-old single mother who operates a small pie-making business from the home she shares with her teenage son Kinan (Bilal Al Hamwi) and her emotionally brittle older sister Layla (Betty Taoutel). Kinan delivers the scrumptious looking pies on his bike, but this restricts the amount of deliveries that can be made. To keep up with growing demand, Arzé makes a down-payment on a scooter and presents it to Kinan as a gift for his 18th birthday. Kinan is all too aware that his mother bought the vehicle for her own benefit, but he gladly accepts it nonetheless. What Kinan and Layla don't know is that Arzé made the payment by secretly pawning Layla's most prized possession, a piece of jewelry gifted to her by a mysteriously departed lover who has left her in such a fragile state that she can no longer leave the house.

While Kinan is visiting friends, the scooter is stolen. With the police proving useless, Arzé decides she must find the scooter herself and so sets out on a quest across Beirut with a reluctant Kinan in tow.

Shaib highlights the infamous sectarian divisions of the Lebanese capital while also mocking their absurdities. Every time Arzé receives a new tip regarding the location of the scooter it requires her to travel to a distinct ethnic neighbourhood. This sees her faking the required accents and renaming Kinan with a moniker that won't draw attention to his true ethnicity (her own name seems malleable enough that she doesn't need to alter it). Arzé's own background is never made clear, though she seems both apolitical and irreligious, so focussed on holding her family together that she has no time for politics. A running gag that's arguably run into the ground sees Arzé pester a hippy shopkeeper for a variety of religious garments and trinkets to help her pull off her various disguises.

Arzé review

The movie is at its most humorous when explicitly highlighting the ingrained bigotry of the divided citizens of Beirut, with members of one group keen to point to another faction as the most likely to indulge in the sort of thievery to which Arzé has fallen victim. We've become so accustomed to western cinema depicting a dubiously utopian United Colors of Benetton society where everyone gets along and nobody ever mentions race or religion that it's somewhat refreshing to see a film be so openly honest about the divisions that persist, and not just in Lebanon. When the hippy store owner boasts about her store being "inclusive," Arzé asks her son what the word means. "No idea," is his reply. It's a comic bit that appears to simultaneously mock both Lebanese ignorance and western institutions' cynical wielding of that term as a marketing tool.

The lightness of touch is so disarming here that non-Lebanese viewers may require a settling-in period to click with the film's wavelength. In the west we tend to only see Middle Eastern movies that portray the more negative aspects of the region in a deeply serious manner. Some of the comedy here will undoubtedly land better with a Lebanese audience, but much of it is universal and there are few major cities around the world that don't have divisions, whether they be cultural, racial, religious or economic. The code-switching engaged in by Arzé from one neighbourhood to another isn't all that different to how Anthony Newley behaves as the titular protagonist of the classic British social realist drama The Small World of Sammy Lee as he negotiates the various ethnic enclaves of 1960s London on a similarly desperate quest.

Arzé review

Unlike the pristine pies its heroine uses to get information from salivating shopkeepers, Arzé is a little overcooked in places and relies too heavily on filling in backstories through soapy speeches. The handling of Leyla's subplot is particularly melodramatic and Hany Adel's score is treacly to a distracting degree in points. But there's much to raise a smile here as Shaib highlights a divisive mentality that's so depressingly ridiculous yet undeniably relatable you simply have to laugh.

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