CAIRO: Cinema loves polygamy. In society-focused fictions about the Muslim world, a husband’s right to marry extra (invariably younger) women is a superlative device for illustrating patriarchy and its associated injustices.
Polygamy pictures have recurring tropes. Generally they’re told from the perspective of the (always sympathetic) first wife, for instance, and it’s the husband’s (necessarily shrewish) mom that engineers the second marriage, her justification for doing so being the first wife’s “failure” to generate a son.
The grim social realities underlying polygamy pictures means they tend to be melodramatic sobfests witness Dariush Mehrjui’s “Leila” or “When Maryam Spoke Out,” by Lebanon’s own Assad Fouladkar.
Many polygamy picture tropes can be found in Mahmoud Sabbagh’s “Amra and the Second Marriage.”
Cinemagoers may be aware of Sabbagh for his lauded 2016 debut “Barakah Meets Barakah,” a boy-meets-girl-in-Jeddah tale that used romantic comedy as a genre platform from which to lob barbs at his country’s conservative social mores and state institutions.
Though focusing on a slightly different demographic, “Amra” sets out to trace a path similar to that of “Barakah.” Unlike budding romance, marital estrangement isn’t exactly a mine of lighthearted comedy, so the Saudi filmmaker chisels the polygamy picture’s melodramatic tropes into comic caricatures, and his eye for social criticism still finds plenty to lampoon.
Amra (Alshaima’a Tayeb), the long-suffering wife at the center of this story, lives in a compound servicing the country’s oil sector with her husband, dementia-afflicted mother and two daughters.
A recent convert to veganism, the youngest, Jamila, is shown doggedly practicing the same bars of a repetitive keyboard tune, an appropriately unhinged score for Amra’s daily grind.
The middle daughter scowls at her mom and grandmother a lot, smokes pot in the toilet (spliffs stashed in an old hair drier) and sneaks off to hang out with her boyfriend. One of the film’s several broad comic figures, the boyfriend dedicates his life to smoking pot, getting his land cruiser up on two wheels and driving it in circles.
Amra’s husband, Hilal, is away in the oil patch for days at a time. In his absence she’s in thrall to her histrionic, forever-shouting mother-in-law Saadiyya.
Soon after the film opens, Amra’s household swells with the arrival of her oldest daughter Halima, babe in arms, who’s left her oil engineer husband after he threatened to divorce her.
The only unconditionally sympathetic character in Amra’s life is her next-door neighbor Rashid, a youthful widower whose daughter attends the same school as Jamila.
As in “Barakah,” Sabbagh here evokes the relationship between the kingdom’s socially conservative state-sector bourgeoisie and the more cosmopolitan face of neoliberalism. Rashid is a consultant whose firm oversees an early retirement program designed to hack away the economy’s deadwood.
When not doing her family’s bidding, Amra’s routine is preoccupied with cooking and changing gas bottles. To keep pace with the rising cost of living, she sells homemade sweets at the compound’s craft market.
She prays a lot too. The film commences at sunset with a camel caravan crossing the screen before a field of oil derricks, as accompanied by Amra’s voice-over, beseeching the deity to keep Hilal’s eye fixed on her. Her spiritual guide is a shades-wearing snake-oil salesman called Sheikh Odeh a comic caricature fond of describing women as hell’s firewood. You’d imagine such sentiments would alienate female believers, but Amra supports the sheikh with donations, buys his brand of holy water and invests in a box set of his Quranic recitations.
The plot gets going when a 20-something babe named Ishtar arrives in the market where Amra and her pal Sarah flog their home cooking. Sabbagh introduces the young woman in a slow-motion sequence modeled on the cheesiest feminine hair product ads.
Her family just moved to the compound, Sarah narrates, calling her “Privatization” because her dad works for a firm devoted to yanking the country’s economy into line with current capitalist practice.
“She’s private sector,” Sarah says. “We’re just public sector. We can’t compete.”
Saadiyya soon arranges the nuptials between Ishtar and Amra’s husband the whole craft souk knows about it before Amra does confronting the harried protagonist with a net reduction in status and security. As she assesses where she might find shelter religion, divorce and remarriage, bourgeois feminism, magic, all illustrated by dream and fantasy sequences the ride grows wilder, flying off the genre rails altogether.
“Amra and the Second Marriage” had its world premiere at the London Film Festival in October. It had its Middle East debut at the Cairo International Film Festival, where it screened in Horizons, CIFF’s Arab film competition.
More ambitious in scope than “Baraka” Sabbagh has said his characters were inspired by the work of Joel and Ethan Coen “Amra” is also less successful.
Veering sharply from comedy through fantasy to surprising violence, the film seems to disavow any desire for tonal consistency.
Plenty of satisfying films have emerged from such inconsistency.
Not this one.
The uneven tone is accentuated by casting and characterization.
Tayeb’s depiction of Amra is (like that of most of her family) on the naturalistic side of slapstick. Her mother-in-law Saadiyya (Khairia Nazmi, who also played a big-voiced character named Saadiyya in “Barakah”) is, like the film’s other comic caricatures, depicted in an over-the-top fashion common in popular television comedies.
As noted, the turmoil of abrupt husband-sharing and the want of recourse for women not wanting to do so isn’t a natural wellspring for gags. While some of the set pieces of social criticism Sabbagh engineers are amusing, they make his film seem top-heavy with exposition and oddly light on plot development beyond polygamy picture tropes.
The filmmaker also struggles to find a satisfying plot resolution.
A not-so-discreetly placed news report about a Kuwaiti woman executed for setting fire to a wedding tent, killing her husband, his second wife and a few hundred guests provides documentary justification for what follows without making Amra’s choices make sense in character or plot terms.
Sabbagh should be commended for trying to do something new with the polygamy picture. Next time a better film may emerge.