Movie Review: A story of divorce, wildlife smuggling and animal training in Oman — “The Falconer”

“The Falconer” is an engaging account of a true story that manages to be uplifting despite a seriously unsavory wildlife smuggling and selling element.

Set in Oman, this tale of two friends — one Middle Eastern, the other a Westerner — touches on the different ways the developed world and the undeveloped one view wildlife as it tells a story of one friend’s efforts to save his sister, who wants to get out of an arranged marriage.

Tariq (Rami Zahar) and Cai (Rupert Fennessy) are best friends in Oman, but teens looking at significantly different futures thanks to status and family fortunes. Tariq can’t plan much beyond high school. Half-Lebanese, he sort of fits in, so long as the locals don’t quibble too much over his background. Cai may have been born there, but he is Western to the core, an animal lover and aspiring wildlife conservationist who expects to go to college in the West.

They met in school, pal around after hours and even have jobs at the local zoo, which is more of a petting zoo whose employees are seriously unsupervised.

A day of swimming and riding on a friend’s boat on the coast lets them hear the legend of a local one-armed animal smuggler, who lost that arm when a leopard he was trying to bring to Oman got loose on the freighter he was transporting it on. His is a cautionary tale, with a hint of magic (a “djinn” has cursed him and forced him to live alone) might figure into the boys’ future.

Because while Tariq’s sister Alia (Noor Al-Huda) might have had a beautiful wedding to her arranged husband, with the men dressed in their finest dishdasha gowns and the bride adorned with veils and jewels, the fact that she flees it within days means trouble.

If Alia wants a divorce, that means Tariq’s family will have to repay the dowry or “mahr” provided by the groom. As her situation promises shame and worse brought upon his family, Tariq takes to swiping and selling critters who won’t be missed at the zoo — pigeons, hamsters, etc.

Cai, the Western idealist who lectures Tariq and everyone else on the animals, and why the zoo’s new falcon can’t be simply released into the wild without being trained to hunt, finds himself trying to help his friend and fend off his ethical and moral qualms about what they’re doing.

The film, in English and Arabic, gives us a small glimpse of life in the barren desert, striking coastline and sleepy backwardness of Oman.

It nicely contrasts the dire straits Tariq finds himself in with the coddled comfort of Cai, who lives in big house full of exotic animals he keeps as pets.

The falconry of the title takes a while to introduce and a longer while to get back to as the script steps away from this titular plot element to explain Tariq’s dilemma. The moral quandary facing our characters is more a problem for one guy than the other, but it doesn’t take much for Cai to join in on the lax amorality of the place.

“The zoo has no idea how much this is worth,” he says with authority, as if they’re being invited to steal critters to help Tariq help his sister.

Co-writers/directors Adam Sjöberg and Seanne Winslow — documentarians making their feature film debut — spend much of their film wandering off on semi-interesting tangents. Nothing in this is as fascinating as the falcon and what must be done to train her, and every detour included here was added to make the obvious and the inevitable direction the story turns in less obvious and seem less inevitable.

Their mis-directions don’t really work, but that’s not a fatal flaw. It’s still a fascinating dip into a culture and its mores that few films have visited before, and that and the built-in culture clash are reasons enough to see it.

Rating: unrated, PG-worthy

Cast: Rami Zahar, Rupert Fennessy and Noor Al-Huda.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Seanne Winslow and Adam Sjöberg. A Gravitas Ventures release.

Running time: 1:40

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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