‘Gaza Mon Amour’ Review: Coy Middle-Aged Romance and Bawdy Farce Mingle in Palestine’s Amiable Oscar Entry

The title “Gaza Mon Amour” carries threatening echoes of those cutesy auteur short anthologies (“Paris je t’aime,” “New York, I Love You”) in which assorted drifting souls find love in the same scenic city streets. Happily, Palestinian twin filmmakers Arab and Tarzan Nasser’s entirely self-contained feature is nothing so slick or glib, though it boasts internationally flavored romantic whimsy in spades. Mixing a minor-key midlife love story with gently politicized farce against the turbulent backdrop of the Gaza Strip, the Nassers’ amiably shaggy film does, in fact, feel a little like a gossamer-weight short that has been stretched to breaking point at a hair under 90 minutes — only just sustained by its vivid sense of place and the unforced charisma of stars Salim Daw and Hiam Abbass.

Such charms have made “Gaza Mon Amour” well-liked on the festival circuit: It secured spots at Venice and Toronto in the fall, before being named Palestine’s submission for the international feature Oscar. Still, the film’s sleepy narrative and mild, oddball humor are unlikely to make it a major arthouse draw, even if its multinational co-production status should guarantee scattered European distribution. The redoubtable Abbass, who has recently expanded her global following with tangy TV appearances in “Succession” and “Ramy,” represents this Arabic-language film’s chief selling point to English-speaking audiences, even if her muted, somewhat mournful role here isn’t among her most vibrant.

It’s the appealingly hangdog Daw (recently seen in the comparable festival hit “Tel Aviv on Fire”) who gets to have the most fun here: an unlikely romantic lead who also steers the film’s diversions into Kaurismäki-esque deadpan comedy. Scruffy of beard and shambling of gait, he plays Issa, a sixtysomething bachelor who makes a modest living as a fisherman, trawling the shores of Gaza by night and selling his haul by day at the street market. There, his head is turned by Siham (Abbass), a reserved, solemn-faced widow working as a seamstress at a neighboring store. Though it’s unspoken and seemingly unreciprocated, his crush prompts him to inform his busybody sister (Manal Awad) that he finally intends to marry; she responds by lining up an unwanted procession of eligible brides.

Unrelated to the progress of Issa’s pining is the lightly zany subplot that ensues when, out in his boat one night, he snags something unexpected in his net: a large, ancient Greek bronze statue of Apollo, complete with a robustly tumescent penis that promptly snaps off when the rest of the body topples over. Though he tries to keep his startling new treasure hidden in his barren bachelor pad, it isn’t long before Palestinian authorities get wind of it and claim it as theirs. Cue a series of police raids, interrogations and detainments, depicted with mixture of weary, shrugging humor and genuine anti-establishment alarm. Issa’s ordeal is presented as a taste of restricted life under Hamas rule, though it never escalates to a point that would disrupt the film’s generally droll air.

Nor, oddly, does it ever really mesh with the leisurely build of Issa and Siham’s relationship. That the prim widow is never drawn into these bawdy shenanigans seems a missed comic opportunity in the Nassers’ loose-knit script, and gives Abbass — while radiant as ever, particularly as she thaws to Issa’s awkward charms — rather too little to do. Indeed, her inner life is all but hermetically sealed from the rest of the narrative, bar a few testy scenes with her adult daughter Leila (Maisa Abd Elhadi), a tart-tongued divorcee who, like one of Issa’s younger associates, yearns to start a new life in Europe.

This restless, escape-minded refrain is heard throughout an urban portrait marked by stuck-in-time decay, shot by Christophe Graillot in a faded, utilitarian palette of khaki and chambray blue. The directors, Gaza natives themselves, regard the place with clear but critical affection, and the film’s winding exploration of its moldering docks, hard-working markets and functional matchbox apartments — afflicted with regular power cuts throughout — give it a pulse even when the storytelling hovers and meanders. There’s more conflict here than the gushy title implies, even when true love prevails and Puccini swells on the soundtrack: “Gaza Mon Amour” is partly a valentine to the titular territory, yes, but it could turn to a Dear John note at any time.

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