Movie Review: Syrian Refugees bring “Peace by Chocolate” to Their Corner of Canada

“Peace by Chocolate” is a charming, almost achingly-sweet fish-out-of-water comedy about Syrian Civil War refugees adjusting to life in small town Canada. Considering the family business they try to establish — chocolate making– “sweet” is pretty much a given.

We meet the Hahdad family just as things reach their nadir. Syria has descended into chaos, and after the bombing of his chocolate factory, patriarch Issam (Hatem Ali) has to listen to med school son Tareq (Ayham Abou Ammar) and agree that it’s time to flee.

Three years later, Tareq lands in grinning, friendly Nova Scotia, the first member of the clan relocated to wintry Antigonish, a remote town where the people are warm and even if the weather rarely is.

There’s a hang-up with his sister’s visa which keeps his father and mother (Yara Sabri) back in Lebanon, waiting. But Tareq isn’t going to let them get discouraged or all his efforts to get them out be in vain. He fibs.

“No mommy, there is no cold in Canada,” he assures them (in Arabic with English subtitles).

Metaphorically speaking, he’s absolutely correct. The grinning 50something locals who greet him tell him “Welcome home,” the resettlement terms include government stipends to help them stay afloat until they get on their feet. All Tareq has to do is find a med school that will take his credits and master the local lingo.

“How’s she gon’ by, eh?”

When his parents arrive, Issam is at a loss. He speaks no English, has only one real skill and his efforts to make suggestions to the local chocolatier (Alika Autran) are misunderstood, at best. It’s all he can do just to exercise control over his family — stepping on Tareq’s hopes, putting all the responsibility for their lives on his English-speaking son, who can’t get into medical school even if his father would let him chase that dream.

Helpful local sponsor Frank (Mark Camacho) tastes Issam’s homemade sweets, which used to be “The finest chocolate in Syria,” and hits on a plan. Issam will make and sell his chocolate in the church market. But that leads to more complications and seems to push Tareq’s medical hopes further into the background.

Director and co-writer Jonathan Keisjer’s debut feature skips over the serious conflicts and struggles of this story — fleeing a war zone, three years in a Lebanese refugee camp — and lowers the stakes in this “based on a true story.”

There’s a hint of strife as the brand they label “Peace by Chocolate” both promises to bring fame and money to the family and the town, and put the hapless local shop owner out of business. Even that “drama” is kept on simmer.

The film is more about the son’s struggle to follow his passion, given guidance and encouragement by the first fellow Arab he meets, a surgeon (Mark Hachem). Issam’s dependence on Tareq, made more burdensome by the father’s “secret,” weighs on his son’s conscience, even as Tareq adopts Western values and sees self-fulfillment in a path that breaks him free of his “traditional” father’s stubborn demands.

Western viewers can experience the dissonance of seeing obvious solutions — Mom and sister Alaa (Najlaa Al Khamri) can learn English and help with the business so that Tareq can ease Canada’s acute doctor shortage. But in an Islamic patriarchy, that will never do. And widowed sister Alaa isn’t willing to Westernize, even if it means it lets her pull her and her little girl’s own weight.

What we’re left with is a conflict that’s somewhat contrived and watered down in that adorably Canadian way. There’s no overt racism or hostility to immigrants shown. Everybody’s just too darned polite for that.

It’s still a sweet, feel good film, hitting the broad strokes of the family’s story, which include a wildly popular candy that complements the Canadian donut addiction, and Tareq’s status as a poster-boy for the immigrant experience, engagingly put on display with every public speech and TV appearance.

“Hello, Canada! Thanks for having us!”

Rating: unrated, mild profanity

Cast: Ayham Abou Ammar, Hatem Ali, Yara Sabri, Mark Camacho,
Mark Hachem, Najlaa Al Khamri and Alika Autran

Credits: Directed by Jonathan Keijser, scripted by Jonathan Keifser and Abdul Malik. A Level 33 release.

Running time: 1:36

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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