'Raven Song' - Review

"There are flavorings of Roy Andersson and Wes Anderson with more than a whiff of Wojciech Has," writes Jay Weissberg in his review of the feature directorial debut by Mohamed Al-Salman -- this year's Saudi submission to the Oscars.
'Raven Song' - Review

With his 2015 short Amongst, maverick Saudi writer-director Mohamed Al-Salman launched himself as a visionary filmmaker with a well-developed eye and a distinctive narrative style grounded in local storytelling. His subsequent shorts have significantly strengthened this initial assessment, and although they’ve been largely ignored by the festival circuit, this omission has more to do with the international community’s blind-spot regarding Saudi cinema rather than any silent statement on Al-Salman’s directorial prowess. It’s not surprising that his first feature, Raven Song, is the Saudi Oscar submission, yet while this semi-hallucinatory, partly absurdist tale of a simple man battered between competing waves of modernism, conservatism and his own uncategorizable psyche displays Al-Salman’s picaresque visual flair, the film has rhythm problems that stymie its cohesiveness. 

Individual scenes are just as bold as his shorts, and Raven Song is infused with a winking humor that frequently transcends cultural barriers even though many references will be best appreciated by local audiences. There are flavorings of Roy Andersson and Wes Anderson with more than a whiff of Wojciech Has (whether premeditated or not), all put in a very Saudi context that remains gratifyingly unpredictable at every stage. What’s lacking is the connective tissue necessary to bring it all together: the stand-out elements are there, replete with recurring motifs, but it’s not propelled forward in a fully orchestrated way, resulting in a flatness at odds with the overall sense of absurdist play.

The opening scene is a highlight and very much a calling card of sorts for Al-Salman’s captivatingly idiosyncratic eye: Nasser (Asem Alawad) stands with his mother (Fatma Alsherif), both terrified, as his father Saleh (Abdulaziz Almubddal) takes a sledgehammer to some music cassette tapes. Great big close-ups and the thumping sound of the hammer make it seem dream-like, enhanced by Nasser’s enormous eyes and high-domed forehead. As viewers, we second-guess ourselves when Nasser looks outside: was that a brain just landing on the ground? Indeed it is, followed by scores more raining from the dark heavens, pink and rubbery blobs cascading down onto the street. It’s a fantastic sequence in every meaning of the word, never quite matched again (but let’s be serious: how do you match a brain shower?).

While the whole episode is a dream, Saleh smashing his son’s cassettes under suspicion of being haram could just as well be real and represents the first of many clashes between the status quo and forces of change, all set in Riyadh in 2002, one year before reformist trends began to be openly discussed in the KSA. The symbolism of the brains becomes clear in the subsequent scene, when Nasser’s doctor (Wael Einahal) tries to push him into having a brain tumor removed under surgery; Nasser, soft-spoken and simple without being simplistic, opts against an operation. An engineer by training but without a degree, he gets work as a receptionist at the Dove Hotel – the aura of transience together with dead hours and a disorienting architectural repetitiveness have long made hotels a go-to location for stories wanting to milk their temporal ambiguities.

A chain of reactions is unleashed by the arrival of Hadeele (Kateryna Tkachenko), a secretive woman who wants to see room 227. Nasser is dumbstruck by her attractions and then mystified when an older man, Abu Yasser (Abdullah Al Jafal) demands to be given the same room. Hadeele’s presence remains symbolic throughout, fulfilling the classic cinematic trope of the unattainable fantasy woman detached from the usual necessities of character and background; her name, which is Arabic for a dove’s coo, reinforces her emblematic role when seen in juxtaposition with the film’s wealth of ornithological allusions. There’s the hotel name for a start – in the Koran a dove helps to protect the Prophet – and of course the film’s title itself. Saleh keeps comparing his son to a dumb goat but Nasser is given the nickname of “the raven,” a bird marked by its cleverness (ironic, given this isn’t an attribute accorded Nasser by the script).

Nasser the Raven is the moniker he’s given to sign a poem he’s meant to transform into a song, pushed by his only friend Abu Sagr (Ibrahim Khairallah), a one-man tow truck enterprise with a sideline in pigeon-keeping. “Sagr” is an Arabic word for “falcon,” furthering the avian references, though the symbolism remains too enigmatic to truly take flight. The poem-song is meant to woo Hadeele, but Abu Sagr, hardly an intellectual, lets it be known that Nasser’s verse attacks modernist trends, which leads to the kidnapping of the hapless young man by the Rolling Reformists Club, a motley assortment of older men packed into a van. While amusing, this particular element doesn’t really go anywhere, though when the van gets hit by a pick-up truck transporting goats, one can only assume this is meant to loop back to Nasser’s father’s spiteful comparison.   

Despite being stocked with memorable moments, Raven Song ultimately collapses under the weight of its ambitions. Too self-consciously enigmatic to fully reveal itself, the film struggles to string together the various allegorical and absurdist elements, and while informed Saudi spectators (the film’s unquestioned audience) familiar with the conflicting schools of literature – and not only – at the start of the 21century will recognize much that is unclear to foreigners, that still won’t counter the feeling of themes only fitfully scored. Performances go a long way towards holding everything together, especially that of Alawad with his remarkably expressive eyes and contained body language, contrasted with Khairallah’s bulldozer effect and the knowing irony of so many side characters. The same can be said for Hossam Habib’s fine camerawork under the director’s guidance, replete with striking images, not just the brain shower but throughout the film, such as a dream sequence in the hotel corridor that’s a dramatic play on black and white.

Al-Salman may not have delivered quite the film expected, but his is a singular, creative talent whose future efforts will be awaited with interest.

Saudi Arabia 2022, 109 mins.

Director: Mohamed Al-Salman

Screenplay: Mohamed Al-Salman

Production: Telfaz 11 Studios

Producer: Ahmed Moussa

Co-producers: Mohammed Algarawi, Mojahed Aljumaiaah

Executive producer: Alaa Faden

Cinematography: Hossam Habib

Editor: Hussain Almutlaq

Music: Mohamed Nassef

Production designer: Ahmed Bageel

Art director: Noura Bageel

Costume designer: Samer Mesawa 

Main cast: Asem Alawad (Nasser), Ibrahim Khairallah (Abu Sagr), Abdullah Al Jafal (Abu Yasser), Kateryna Tkachenko (Hadeele), Wael Einahal (Dr. Ahmed), Abdulaziz Almubddal (Saleh, Nasser’s father), Fatma Alsherif (Nasser’s Mother), Ibrahim Alhasawy (Abu Hani), Rakan Algasim (Hani), Nawaf Almhanna (the Journalist), Bader Abuhumail (Abu Yasser’s son-in-law), Bilal Ali (Dulal), Abdullah Dhahran (Melodist), Rashed Almudhesh (Abu Sagr’s friend), Mohammed Bawazeer, Moahmmed Alrafidi, Faisal Alshuaib, Naif Alfawaz, Abdulaziz Alkhames (Modernists), Itaf AbdulRhim, Nuha Aljizany (Abu Yasser’s daughters).

Raven Song world premiered at this year's Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah.

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