Comedies with heart are not exactly a new thing under the cinematic sun, but Maktub, a film about two lower level mobster enforcers who have a distinct change of heart about their careers and life in general after a traumatic event, does it far better than most.
It accomplishes this feat of thematic derring-do by managing, with grace, good humour and more than a little heart, to balance a lot of competing narrative demands that, if they’d spun of control could’ve sunk the film without a trace.
It helps that the two stars of the film, Guy Amir and Hanan Savyon (who wrote the film together), who play Chuma and Steve respectively, are an established TV duo in Israel who are clearly at ease and practiced at working together, lending what is, in some respects, a buddy comedy, a lovely relaxed edge.
In other words, you believe that the two men, as different as chalk and cheese, actually like each other although, as is the way with these type of buddy films, there’s a lot they don’t know about each other, the revelations or confrontations of which cause some nicely-handled narrative bumps along the road.
Less you think that’s strictly metaphorical, Chuma and Steve work for a ruthless mobster Kaslassy (Itzik Cohen) who thinks nothing of reversing without warning and taking out innocent man who impatiently demanded the parking spot that the crime boss was vacating.
For a bright, light, often droll comedy, Maktub, taken from the Arabic term for fate, can be confrontingly violent, not least when a terrorist bomb goes off, leaving Chuma and Steve the only ones alive in a restaurant where they were collecting protection money.
The joke here is that they only survive because Steve, a suited gourmand who is continually admonishing Chuma’s habit of eating hot peppers with everything – his car decoration, hanging from the rearview mirror, is a dangling chain of red peppers – wants to clean off a tiny spot of blood (or pomegranate juice, says Chuma) from his shirt before the soiling ruins his Pierra Cardin shirt, and by extension, day.
The cleaning of the shirt is a lovely little comedic moment that establishes an even stronger sense of who these men are, something that has been profoundly well-realised almost from the word go where, thuggish violence aside, we realise that Steve and Chuma are actually nice guys.
You get the sense they might be in the wrong line of work, something reinforced when, in the shocked aftermath of the bomb blast, they decide, led by Chuma who sees their survival as a sign from God that they are meant to do good deeds (Steve just wants to go New Jersey and run a food truck with his friend), to take prayers and wishes from the Wailing Wall and fulfil them, using the funds they acquire when they lie to Kaslassy and say the money didn’t survive the explosion.
Off they go, helping a man who needs a raise and a less onerous work schedule to keep his marriage fresh and alive, a woman, Russian émigré and single mum Doniasha (Anastasia Fein) who wants to hold a Bar Mitzvah for her son (even though she can’t afford one) and childless Bruria (Edna Blilious) who longs for a baby and is connected to the two men in a way that proves rather pivotal in the film’s highly-satisfying and heart-tugging final act.
For two men used to enforcing violence and retribution, helping people, especially in ways that prove to be unexpectedly, life-transforming, is a revelation, a totally change of outlook that spurs them on to a host of other changes, not the least of which is a career change which naturally doesn’t go down too well with their old boss.
The reason all of these well-used elements mesh together so well is that Amir and Savton, ably directed by Oded Raz, never go overboard, with either the violence, or most importantly, the comedy, holding back when less wise heads would’ve pushed the comedic pedal to the metal.
The most surprising, and delightful part of Maktub is the way the duo ever-so-deftly manage to give the film a huge and beating heart that never descends into mawkish sentimentality.
This is due largely to the fact that they don’t attempt to overplay of the constituent elements; yes, they are doing good deeds and lives are changed, and for the substantive better, but they are left to tell their own stories in their own ways, allowing some genuine emotion to percolate through what are, if you solely to hold a cold, appraising eye to them, fairly stock standard situations.
In the hands of Amir and Savyon, who moved endearingly through their various wish-granting scenarios while navigating romance with Donaisha (Steve) and Lizo (Chen Amsalem) with whom Chuma is close but not yet romantically-involved, the unofficial father to her son, Avisir, the various scenes are fresh, heartfelt and full of ironic humour, all of which adds to a film that balances comedy and heart with what looks like practised ease.
So easily and immersively does this joy-filled fest of a film pull you in, without dipping once into cloying Hallmark territory, that it doesn’t take long for you to be rooting heart and soul for the two men, who make good on their post-bombing commitment to help others, hoping they survive the looming showdown with Kaslassy, navigate well their great romantic forks in the road, and have their own wishes granted after all their own good deeds play out very happily indeed.
It’s that kind of film, and it is remarkably, buoyantly good at what it does, being brutally realistic about life is like for some people, and how dirty and unflinching life can be, but offering up some hope, and plenty of laughs, that there still some humanity, flawed though it might be, left in the world.