The first fiction film to be set amongst the working-class Black Saudi community of Riyadh, this social issues drama, released by Netflix and chosen as the Kingdom’s international feature submission, is more fascinating for the cultural differences it reveals than any felicities of filmmaking. Taking place at the end of the 1990s, the rather ominously titled “The Tambour of Retribution,” is the second feature directed by Abdulaziz Alshelahi (“Zero Distance”). It focuses on the barriers to a love match between the son of an executioner and the daughter of a wedding musician, whose society leaves them with more indebtedness to their families than free will.
Twentysomething Dayel (Faisal Aldokhi, a best actor winner at the Cairo Fest) is supported by his uncle Atiq (Mohaned Alsaleh), a swordsman who works as a government executioner. This occupation is also the legacy of Dayel’s late father, but the job doesn’t appeal to his son. These days, the lovestruck Dayel is pretty much at loose ends. When he can’t sneak up to the roof of the apartment building where his would-be girlfriend lives for a surreptitious conversation, he shocks his neighbors by keeping late hours and palling around with other bachelor friends, occasionally consuming black market arak. The film initially looks as if it will be a romantic comedy, but comedy it is not.
The object of Dayel’s affections is fiery Shama (Adwa Aldkhil), an aspiring clothing designer, and the daughter and niece of musicians. They’ve been meeting, albeit chastely and secretly, for almost a year. But in their traditional society, an executioner has much more status and respectability than a musician. Dayel’s uncle uses this as an excuse to forbid their marriage, while secretly scheming to get the young man launched in the family business and married to his own daughter as soon as possible.
Just as Atiq decides to cut Dayel’s purse strings to encourage obedience, Shama’s impoverished family is also feeling an extra financial pinch. Her cousin Suror (Shabib Alkhaleefa) — at one point Shama’s intended — is in prison for murder, so they are desperately trying to raise the blood money demanded by the victim’s family in order to save Suror’s life. Meanwhile, in order for their family band to land well-paid gigs they require a female keyboard player. Shama’s beleaguered mother Badriah (Rawya Ahmed), implores her daughter to learn the instrument.
Even though he lacks the means to marry her, the ever-jealous Dayel still makes a lot of demands on Shama. Despite knowing about her family crisis, he tells her that if she were to perform at a wedding, he would follow his uncle’s wishes, meaning that he could potentially be the one to execute Suror. For a relationship such as theirs, his uncle’s platitude rings true: “You can either fall in love or get married. Don’t be greedy.”
The screenplay by Mufarrij Almajfel, who also penned Alshelahi’s feature debut, has a number of flaws, lack of clarity being the most glaring. We never learn why Suror committed his crime, although at one point it seems as if Shama’s brother is about to reveal this information. The film’s final moments come off as confusing although this seems equally attributable to directing choices.
On the plus side, overall, the film paints a picture of a warm, inter-connected community, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and many come together to support those in need. It’s a place where a handicapped guy hangs out in front of the local grocery store, providing color commentary on the neighborhood goings on, where the grocer nurses a crush on Badriah and is in no hurry for her to pay off her debt and where kids playing on the street won’t give directions to the police who are looking for a neighbor.
Nevertheless, the differences in social mores dictate the outcome of the narrative. Not only do they block the relationship of Dayel and Shama, but we get several arguments for capital punishment as a community good. Atiq tells Dayel, “It’s a job like any other. All countries in the world have someone to execute their verdicts.” Meanwhile, the friendly woman who inquires about the occupation of Shama’s boyfriend tells her, “We’ve got to have people who rid us of criminals. It makes me feel safe.”
Although no one discusses it, consanguinity appears to be a given. Before Suror was imprisoned, he was expected to marry Shama, his first cousin. And Atiq thinks the most appropriate match for Dayel would be his own daughter.
The tech credits are nothing special. Much of the action takes place in drab interiors since the female characters are practically unrecognizable when in proper hijab outdoors. Since men and women socialize separately from each other at weddings and circumcisions, we get lively traditional music performed live by both sexes.
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