It’s not very often that we get to see a movie that comments on life in the strict country of Saudi Arabia. Mahmoud Sabbagh’s film, Barakah Meets Barakah, screened at MAMI this year, is said to be Saudi’s very first romantic comedy. The movie describes the cute and complicated love story of a young man and woman living in Saudi, while giving us a glimpse of life there. The struggles of the couple trying to be with each other, spend time together, and explore their relationship, are unlike any other. Even in India, you’re not likely to see a rigid romance of this sort. Yet, Barakah Meets Barakah mostly makes you laugh and enjoy the characters, amidst the pity you feel for them.
While Barakah (Hisham Fageeh) is a shy young man working for the municipality and following rules, Bibi (Fatima AlBanawi) is a fashionable carefree girl with feminist ideologies. They meet and despite their differences, are attracted to each other. The only problem is that they cannot spend too much time with each other. There are no places they can meet where they cannot be hounded by the religious police of the country. Yet, their limitations only make their connection grow stronger, and they find a way to see more of each other, even if they are brief encounters. Neither know if this is a short-lived romance, or can blossom into something greater. Meanwhile, changes in their own lives may lead them different ways.
The movie begins with a disclaimer that reads: “The pixelization you see in this film is totally normal. It is not a commentary on censorship. We repeat, it is not a commentary on censorship.” While this initially elicits laughter among the audience, once the movie starts you understand the reason for this. There are several blurred shots, such as a man holding a drink (drinking is illegal there), even though the blur disappears while he is pouring it into the glass or flinging it towards his wife. Even Bibi showing her middle finger was blurred, and we can understand why, even if we do not agree with it. What’s surprising was the blurring of women’s faces in advertisements. This was not done in the film, but was shot as is, giving us a glimpse of the widespread sexism prevalent in the country. Barakah’s commentary on the changing times in Saudi also paints a similar picture.
The lead actors do seem to have decent chemistry, but it is the supporting characters who impress more. You can’t help but adore Barakah, but Da'ash and Auntie Sa'adiya’s idiosyncrasies are what send you into peals of laughter. The movie is very simplistic – right from its technical aspects (direction, editing, sound, etc.) to its emotions. It is the social message, or rather the harsh reality of Saudi Arabia, that stays with you in the end. The characters simply provide comic relief in the narrative.