Movie Review: Mahbas, by Sophie Boutros

Mahbas (solitaire)

Sophie Boutros’s award-winning 2016 movie Mahbas (Solitaire) is about the overcoming of prejudices, the celebration of love despite the many hurdles leading to the finish line, and the marriage of minds and cultures. It was a big day. A long-awaited one, where a “khotbi” (an engagement) was to take place. But it looks like biting into a morning pickle was not the only sour event–nor the only Syrian–that Therese is about to encounter during her day. Therese (Julia Kassar) still lives in mourning and in the painful past of twenty years earlier when her brother was killed by a Syrian bomb, and ironically, with the progression of time around her, Ghada (Serena Chami), her daughter, falls in love with Samer (Jaber Joukhadar), a Syrian man whom she meets while working in Dubai. Therese is completely unaware of this fact, as her daughter had managed to conceal this information for a long time; Ghada hadn’t introduced her mother to Samer, so they will first be meeting on the engagement day when Samer and his parents (with the solitaire ring) are expected to visit to ask for Ghada’s hand in marriage (as per Middle Eastern customs). Perhaps what had kept Ghada from spilling out the truth was a combination of the obvious lack of communication between mother and daughter, as well as Therese’s openly racist attitude toward Syrians. 

Upon meeting her daughter’s potential fiance, Therese immediately plots the destruction of the engagement before it has the chance to officially happen. Along with her accomplice, Ghada’s ex-boyfriend, Marwan (said Serhan), she plans to expose an amorous email recently sent by Ghada to the latter; Therese intends to make the jealous Samer change his mind about his not-so-loyal future bride.

A series of funny events and embarrassing situations occur, while various adventures ensue. In the kitchen, more than food gets cooking: Therese steams and stirs as she plots and ploys the demise of her daughter’s engagement as she secretly converses with her late brother’s photos around the house, re-igniting her rage against the Syrians. This only feeds her determination to destroy Ghada and Samer’s  relationship within a few hours. 

Symbols of entrapment, stagnance, and frozenness in time are highlighted not only through Therese’s conversations with her deceased brother’s photos, which are conjured into animation upon her speech–but also through the watch, which, ironically, belonged to Therese’s brother, and was to be given to Samer as an engagement gift. Wrapped around his wrist upon his entering Ghada’s house, the watch intended to show the lens through which Therese would regard her future son-in-law: an enslavement by the painful past, a hurdle against progression, and better communication with the dead than with her living kin.

Food and fusion meet at the dinner table, where tension tangoes with humor, a brilliant feast of characterization takes place: Samer’s mother, Nazek (Nadine Khoury), an elegant,  lacquered woman of little modesty and much ego, is quite wary of “the Lebanese”, and makes several hints at the dubious morals of Lebanese girls; Samer’s jovial father, Riad (Bassam Koussa), laughing, singing, asking questions, eager to appreciate the ‘others’ and attempting to correct the slightly lopsidedly-hung photo of Therese’s brother; Solange (Betty Taoutel), Therese’s vibrant, chatty neighbor tries to placate the atmosphere by throwing jokes and steering conversations away from any potential triggers, while Ghada’s father, Maurice (Ali El Khalil) is preoccupied with silencing both his wife and the incessant calls of his secret mistress. The ensuing mayhem then offers the viewers a fair share of comedy and empathic reflection.

For a romantic comedy, there were many poignant, profound scenes that were cleverly weaved in. One of the most touching scenes, again in the kitchen, symbolizes the proposed possibility for bridging gaps and overcoming prejudices, when Therese offering Nazek, Samer’s mother, a pair of slippers to relieve her from the feet pain caused by her high heels. After Nazek “climbs down” from her heels and (literally) puts her feet in Therese’s shoes, we see an instant shift from the condescending attitude she held earlier: Therese tells Nazek about her conversations with her late brother, whom she hopes can hear her. Nazek, touched by Therese’s sadness, reassures the former that he sure can. Therese then suddenly injures her hand while drying a glass with a towel, which prompts Nazek to rush over with gauze and sanitizer to treat the wound; eyes meet and smiles are exchanged despite the fact that Therese had connivingly hid the solitaire ring in Nazek’s purse, intending to accuse her of theft. 

In the end, the solitaire ring conquers the watch, reflecting how Sophie Boutros’s creative energy, insight into human nature, and inventiveness are intactly put into play in Mahbas. The plot, dialogue, and brilliant archetypal characterization are choreographed with such deftness that viewers can instantly bond with the characters. Besides the apparent theme of Lebanese-Syrian racism, the movie also highlights another form of tolerance, or lack thereof: that of social snobbism (Samer, a businessman looking down on Marwan, a mechanic-turned-dancer; Nazek, regarding her surroundings with an uppity air and refraining from conversation).

Both entertaining and reflection-inducing, Mahbas, with its manifestation of socio-cultural themes in binational marriages,can be added to the list of movies along with Our Family Wedding, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, West Side Story, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Dr. Roula-Maria Dib 

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