'Sattar' سطار - Review

The highly-anticipated Saudi action-comedy is set for a wide theatrical launch in Saudi Arabia on December 29 via Front Row Arabia, a joint-venture between MENA distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment and Saudi Arabia’s leading home-grown exhibitor, Muvi Cinemas-- and prominent film critic Jay Weissberg reviews it exclusively for MIME.
'Sattar' سطار - Review

The story told in Sattar is practically as old as cinema itself: an underdog who’s passionate about a particular sport perseveres despite the odds, wins back his girl, and triumphs in the final act. In fact, there’s very little that could be called “original” in Abdullah Al-Arak’s enormously fun popular comedy about a nice guy crazy for professional wrestling who decides to try out for Saudi Arabia’s team.  But then again, originality is as rare as a summer hailstorm and generally overrated. In some ways, Sattar’s formulaic nature can be seen as a sign of Saudi cinema’s healthy infancy: its very normality and utter lack of pretense reflects an industry seeing itself as a big tent where all can thrive. As an added plus, it’s damn funny.

While the film premiered at the Red Sea International Film Festival in early December, it was given almost no attention by a press department clearly more interested in Western titles than homegrown product.  And yet the audience went wild during the screening, laughing raucously and cheering the protagonist, played with self-effacing likeability by popular actor and stand-up comedian Ibrahim Alhajjaj. Fortunately, Front Row Filmed Entertainment announced they’ll be distributing the film in the KSA beginning at the end of December and then releasing it throughout the Gulf soon after.

Saad (Alhajjaj) is a bored paper-pusher working an unfulfilling job at an insurance company. As a child, he was introduced to the pumped-up theatricality of professional wrestling by his super-fan grandfather (Abdul Aziz Al Mubadala), yet as an overweight unathletic kid, his classmates ridiculed his interest, relegating his fantasies to the dustbin of broken dreams. While his adult life isn’t what he imagined for himself, at least he’s engaged to his heart’s desire, Felwah (Shahd Al-Qafary), whose supportive nature is at odds with her harridan mother (Nouf Saad), the kind of future in-law with lips curled in a perpetual pout of disgust at anything to do with Saad.

As his wedding day nears and the bills mount, Saad looks for ways to earn extra income. His grandfather encourages him to try out for the newly announced Saudi wrestling team, but the audition is a disaster as he’s pitted against muscle-bound bullies uninterested in the staged performative elements that first kindled his passion for the sport. Not only does he not make the team, but he becomes a laughingstock throughout the country when a video leaks of him getting mercilessly pummeled and he’s nicknamed “The Punching Bag.”

Dejected, Saad figures it’s time to move on from his childhood obsession until he’s contacted by Ali Hogan (Abdul Aziz Al Shehri), a cartoonish self-described talent manager whose name reflects the composite nature of his character: part Ali G, part Hulk Hogan. It’s a completely over-the-top role, from the way he talks to how he’s styled, yet the exaggeration works when contrasted with Saad’s amiable everyman; in any event, how could a film about wrestling not include overblown elements? 

Ali introduces Saad to Riyadh’s illegal wrestling scene, a world he never imagined existed that’s literally underground – it’s accessed through a garage mechanic’s car repair trough – run by a mysterious masked man called The Doberman (professional bodybuilder Abdullah Wael Alrabiah). This is where he trains and is pitted against rivals, but Saad’s idea of wrestling comes from the WWF, where prearranged scenarios and safe words guarantee that the match is more spectacle than fight. Instead, here it’s no-holds-barred and he’s repeatedly thrashed. Losing can be lucrative though, since Ali bets against Saad winning, so despite the humiliation at least our hero is earning enough money for his wedding.

Or at least he thought so until his future mother-in-law learns about what he’s doing and forbids Felwah to marry him. Everything is crashing down: he’s lost his girl, he’s become a laughing-stock on social media and his body aches from the constant beatings.  It’s a classic crisis of faith moment when all seems lost: will Saad overcome the odds and achieve his dreams? 

Do we have any doubts? The unashamedly formulaic nature of Sattar’s skeleton guarantees that we know the underdog will triumph in the end, but the predictability factor is amply mitigated by the sheer fun of it all. Alhajjaj’s good-natured dreamer is like what a Seth Rogen character would be without the vulgarity and the insufferableness: we root for him at every moment. One script flaw is that grandpa disappears far too early, and while we know he’s got to return, it should have been sooner, even if only glimpsed. 

Kuwaiti director Abdullah Al-Arak effortlessly makes the transition from series to features, imbuing Sattar with verve, playing off certain exaggerations with more balanced scenes to milk the humor without going too overboard. There are plenty of in-jokes that will only be understood by Saudi audiences, and the film is unlikely to get distribution outside the region, but that’s not a negative assessment, especially given its self-awareness. Music is given a key role, amusingly playing with headbanging metal during the fight sequences.

Saudi Arabia, 2022, 106 mins.

Director: Abdullah Al-Arak 

Production: Telfaz 11 Studios, Shimaisi Films, Muvi Studios

Producer: Ahmed Moussa

Screenplay: Ibrahim Khairallah, Ayman Wattar, Osama Al-Fadhel, Wael Al-Saeed

Cinematography: Ammr Alamari

Editor: Ehab Gohar

Production design: Ahmed Baageel

Cast – Ibrahim Alhajjaj, Abdul Aziz Al Shehri, Shahd Al-Qafary, Ibrahim Al-Khairallah, Moaz Al Marri, Abdul Aziz Al Mubadala, Nouf Saad, Abdullah Wael Alrabiah.

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