Review: HABIBI Is An Earnest If Familiar Love Story

Susan Youssef's first feature Habibi is an earnest if not entirely impressive tale of forbidden love set in Israeli-occupied Palestine. While the film does stir and touch at appropriate moments, the threads of a tried-and-true narrative ultimately fail to come together into something noteworthy.

Layla (Abd Elhadi) and Qays (Kais Nashif) are lovers who, at the opening of the film, have had their student visas revoked, and are thus forced to return to their respective families. Layla, an engineering student, comes from a somewhat well-off family that is attempting to arrange her marriage to a very wealthy doctor. Qays, a gloomy writer and poet, comes from a working-class home and works in construction. As the film progresses, Qays' lovesickness prompts him to steal away to Layla's neighborhood by night, writing poetry inspired by their love.

Layla's father, who has grown increasingly concerned for the family's safety as violence in the region escalates, becomes enraged at Qays' daring words that call Layla by name, fearing that her reputation has been ruined. A bold visit by Qays to ask for her hand ends badly, and the couple is forced to make a choice between the security and comfort of their families and staying true to their troubled love.

 Habibi is more than a little rough around the edges, both from an aesthetic and narrative point of view, though the low budget photography feels appropriately gritty and claustrophobic. The film's story is as straightforward a tale of forbidden and tragic love as there has ever been, but certain aspects of the plot feel underdeveloped, particularly a subplot involving the radicalization of Layla's brother.

The performances of the two leads are serviceable, with Nashif in particular turning in a solid turn as the sadly smoldering Qays. Elhadi does a decent job with a somewhat underdeveloped character who remains mostly static and reactionary throughout the film. In the end, Habibi gives the viewer a somewhat enlightening, if not entirely bleak view of life in Gaza, but offers little in the way of a deep connection to its protagonists. The plight of Layla and Qays elicits sympathy, but feels engineered to move the film through the beats of its story, rather than emerging organically from an exploration of the characters.

Habibi is a solid effort for a first-timer, and provides a raw and unvarnished look at a life outside the experience of most Western filmgoers. However, an unremarkable and well-worn narrative leaves little else to recommend.

Habibi plays at the ReRun Gastropub in Dumbo, Brooklyn until the 21st. Please visit the film's website for info on future screenings.

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