Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Meeting in Palmyra (Syria/Lebanon, 1965)

When I pledged to diligently seek out more films like Ana Antar, I had no idea that I would find a film almost exactly like it within just a couple of weeks. Like Ana Antar, A Meeting in Palmyra is an action comedy starring the popular Syrian comedy team Doreid & Nihad helmed by Egyptian director Joseph Maalouf.

Doreid & Nihad were so popular in their homeland during their 1960s prime that they are credited with revitalizing Syrian commercial cinema at the time. Demand was such that they were churning out two films a year and, in the process, prompting a dramatic increase in theater attendance throughout the country. Not surprisingly, their films were resolutely commercial in nature, which makes the fact that they were able to continue making them during a time of increasing government control of the Syrian film industry a further testament to their star power.

As in Ana Antar, A Meeting in Palmyra places the duo at the center of criminal caper. Doreid Lahham plays Nabeeh, the personal secretary to Farid, a businessman who has fled the country after being accused of murdering his partner. This partner, it turns out, had sold out their business to a criminal gang led by Mr. Nimr (Yacoub Abu-Ghazaleh). Nabeeh arrives in Beirut to aid Farid’s sister Laila (beloved Syrian star Hala Shawkat) in mounting Farid’s defense. There he is introduced to Laila’s uncle, a lawyer played by Nihad Kalai, who is named, as are Nihad’s characters in most of the Doreid & Nihad films, Hosney.

Throughout their time in Beirut, Nabeeh, Hosney and Laila are relentlessly tailed by agents of Nimr, who is determined to eliminate them before they expose his criminal operation. Fearing for Laila’s safety, Nabeeh—who, I think, is of Bedouin heritage—prevails upon solicitous tribal chieftain Abul Elahab (Sabri Ayyad) to escort her across the Syrian border to his camp in Palmyra, where her brother is also hiding out. Nabeeh and Hosney are then left behind to investigate the crime, facing no small opposition from Nimr and his cronies along the way. One of these cronies, it turns out, is Abul Elahab, who, unknown to them, has plans to kill Laila upon his return to Palmyra.

A Meeting in Palmyra is a very entertaining film. Doreid and Nihad have an appealing chemistry, and making them protagonists in a crime drama serves them well. This insures that they will have to periodically put aside their comic squabbling in order to work together at solving the crime. This, however, is not to denigrate their style of comedy, which is seminal in nature. Watching them run through their shtick will give a warm, fuzzy feeling to anyone familiar with the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, and Hope and Crosby’s Road pictures. Lahham is especially funny as the small statured hipster/nebbish (I stand by my earlier description of him as a cross between Groucho Marx and 1960s Woody Allen) who is constantly trying to hit on women drastically out of his league by affecting continental airs with varying degrees of success. He also has delusions of becoming a popular singer, and his habit of croaking tunelessly into a portable tape recorder nicely dovetails into a narrative payoff at the film’s conclusion.

The film also evidences the sort of “entertainment at all costs” sensibility that offers us a lot of pleasing distractions along the way. There are a number of songs, including one sung by Syrian actress and singer Yusra Bedouin, as well as a Beatles spoof that sees a be-wigged Lahham join a beat group on stage to shimmy around spastically and shout “yeah yeah yeah” into the microphone. And then, of course, there is the fanciful set design, which colorfully combines the aesthetics of The Flinstones and The Jetsons into a sort of midcentury paleo-modernism. The attendant over-ripened color scheme makes the film overall feel like a Middle Eastern version of one of Frank Tashlin’s live action cartoons.

The finale of A Meeting in Palmyra sees Nabeeh and Hosney put on their hero pants and face off against Nimr’s forces amid Palmyra’s stunning landscape of ancient monuments. Of course, under the present circumstance, these sequences can’t help but have a bitter aftertaste, given that, as of this writing, so many of those monuments have either been systematically destroyed by ISIS or shattered by government airstrikes. The pain of this is made even more acute by the contrast of these events with the Pan-Arab openness of A Meeting in Palmyra—a film that combines Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian talent to create something that can be enjoyed by anyone with a love of movies, whatever their politics or beliefs. In this way the film speaks to a world that, while much less connected than today’s, nonetheless offered some modest potential for harmony among its people, who could commune via their shared desires in the darkness of the global movie house.

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