“Ali’s Wedding” opens with a guy in a tux, fleeing the Aussie cops on a tractor.
“Pool the veHICLE ovah!”
“Sorry mate, ah’m TRYIN’ t’get to the AIRport!”
Ali, our Iraqi-Australian hero, is running from his own wedding. And “Ali’s Wedding” is semi-reverent romp about the lies, the culture and the family that put Ali (Osamah Sami) in this predicament.
Inspired by the real life of its co-writer/star, it’s a bracingly revealing portrait of Muslims transplants in the West, sweet and at times damned funny.
It dares to acknowledge those things that make Westerners blanch at the culture — sexism, rigidity to “the Way of The Prophet,” arranged marriages, a community that sits in judgment, ululating.
But this Australian comedy finds humor in those, and in the Western ways which the young, and sometimes the old, have embraced. The most daring thing about this movie might be the ways it shows this “quaint” community can be amusing as Greeks, Italians, Jews, Indians, Mormons, African Americans or any other subculture that’s been the subject of screen romantic comedies, and no more threatening.
Three lies made Ali the man he is. His father is a holy man, the mahdi, of a community of Australian Islamic expats. The lie that saved his father got them out of Saddam’s Iraq, “The second lie was believing we could have a life as Iraqis living in Iran.” And the third, “my biggest lie,” is the subject of the movie.
He’s carried the burden of being the second son and his father’s dream of raising a doctor with him ever since that older brother died, saving him from a minefield when he was a child. But Ali bombs out on his med school entrance exam. He can’t tell his father (Don Hany) because of the shame it will bring him in front of his congregation at the mosque.
Ali is crazy about Dianne (Helena Sawires), the sarcastic and beautiful young fish monger’s daughter who is smart enough for med school, even if her father and their community don’t approve.
“If her father is willing to turn his back on the way of The Prophet and let mix with Westerners at the university,” is how that community shows its rigidity, and its passive-aggressive side. Ali’s heartfelt congratulations separate him from other possible suitors, and she starts to flirt back.
And that’s another problem. These two may click, but Ali’s parents (Frances Duca plays his over-the-top mom) have a suitable bride lined up. So there’s another lie he has to live. How far will Ali go to maintain these overlapping charades? Who will figure him out?
Director Jeffrey Walker, and co-writers Sami and Andrew Knight, take their cue from comedies about Indian and Pakistani expats in Britain, Australia or America. They populate this world with a wide rainbow of Muslims, from snobbish Arabs and Persians to working class Egyptians and Lebanese.
“Scarface” posters on the walls, thick Oz accents and Australian Rules Football (“footie”) on the telly, these folks are assimilating faster than even they realize.
Ali’s father is a flexible Mahdi, erring on the side of kindness when one of his flock is in tears over a tantrum in which he did the whole “I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee” thing and doesn’t want to lose his marriage. When Dianne scores well enough to get into Melbourne U. med school, the Mahdi silences his insulting, whispering congregation with a gentle reminder of which century and which country they’re all living in.
“If she were my daughter, I would be very proud.”
Dad is not just the spiritual leader of his flock, but a playwright whose Koranic parables are elaborate, whimsical productions that involve a lot of the guys (no women) from the community.
Dad’s dream show? “The Trial of Saddam Hussein.’ Believe me, it will be a comedy…with music.”
Ali will be his Saddam. He does a killer whiny-voiced Saddam for all his pals (from various cultures) at the convenience store where he works. Like young men the world over, the guys curse, joke around, look at porno mags and lie about women.
A white Aussie odd-man out among Ali’s convenience store pals wonders, “Can’t you guys have like 72 wives or some s—?”
Ali’s brother has the foulest mouth of them all. He’s a frosted-tips, butt-crack baring mechanic with the purplest Porsche in all of Australia.
“This is my JOB, Dad. I have to speak f—ing Australian!”
Only Ali’s ignored and plainly too-smart-for-this-patriarchy younger sister (Asal Shenaveh) figures out his entrance exam secret, though his snooty rival ((Shayan Salehian) has his suspicions.
That’s a lot of detail, but that’s where “Ali’s Wedding” works best — all these little slices of life, warm inside peeks at the culture and gentle comical jabs at it. Ali is dragged to a tea ceremony, the ritual where future husband meets future wife and the families give their approval. This isn’t who he wants to marry, and a frantic phone call to his more savvy pal Ayub is his lifeline.
“How do I NOT get married?” What decorums can he break, what breaches of tea ceremony etiquette will earn the disapproval of the father of the bride he doesn’t want?
That tea ceremony, by the way? Positively Austenesque.
The romance is utterly charming, largely thanks to Sawires’ winsome, aloof manner melting in the presences of this encouraging, kind and generally guileless young man who is plainly infatuated with her (Sami pulls that off with ease). Their chaste courtship, search for work-arounds for the Koran, furtively holding pinkies (not hands) at the movies, is just adorable.
The film is both Western and Middle Eastern, devout and comically blasphemous, praying for miracles, swearing at the heavens for a “bleeping” sign from Allah, which one suspects wouldn’t play in the Middle East.
It’s too long, meanders hither and yon in getting to the ending we’re looking for. The picture takes several detours along the way — flashbacks, the hope that Ali’s grandmother is still alive and might be able to get out of Iraq, a seriously unpleasant side trip to U.S. Border Patrol, power struggles at the mosque.
These just distract us from the thing that works, the love story, and the Arab aphorisms that bind the story together and makes it universal.
“A lie begins in the soul, and then travels the world.”
MPAA Rating: unrated, with profanity, smoking
Cast: Osamah Sami, Don Hany, Helena Sawires, Frances Duca
Credits:Directed by Jeffrey Walker, script by Andrew Knight and Osamah Sami. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:49