Kingdom of Heaven

My husband and I went to see Kingdom of Heaven the other night. It’s playing here in Damascus at the Cham Cinema. I thought this film would be a particularly interesting one to watch with an Arab audience, given its subject matter (the Crusades).

From what I’ve read about the movie on the internet, Kingdom of Heaven has been lauded in the western press for being “even-handed,” whatever that means these days. I think they mean that its depiction of the Muslim warriors in the film is not overly derogatory, and that it also does not glorify the European crusaders. I was curious to see if I agreed. I was also curious to see Salahadin portrayed on-screen – by a Syrian actor, no less.

We arrived at the theater a few minutes before 9 to meet some friends. At the Cham Cinema, shows are listed as starting on the hour, but they usually don’t begin until half-past the hour to allow for seating, previews of the latest American B-movies and upcoming Egyptian films, and latecomers. My husband got in line to buy a ticket – the young Syrian male in front of him nonchalantly asked for a ticket to the movie “Salahadin,” and the cashier didn’t even bat an eye.

As we waited in the lobby, I noticed that there were signs everywhere announcing Syria’s own Ghassan Massoud in the film, starring as Salahadin. The movie crowd was pretty mixed – not quite all young men, though they were by far the largest presence. There were plenty of young women in the audience as well, some of them veiled. Justified or not, I always feel better if there are veiled women around. It is usually a good indicator that whatever place I’m in is probably respectable. I already attract enough attention as a foreign woman, without unknowingly breaking social taboos left and right, and the muhajjaba’s lead is generally pretty safe to follow. Oh, and I even saw another pregnant woman, which made me feel still more comfortable.

The movie was really good. I would even say excellent, except that I had my eyes closed for about 1/5 of it (I’m a bit squeamish when it comes to violence). And I agree that the portrayal of each side, Muslim and Christian, was very sensitive and balanced. In fact, it may even have been too balanced at times. I wasn’t always sure who I should be rooting for – aren’t movies always supposed to have good guys and bad guys? – and even the main character, Balian, was not a clear-cut hero, at least at first.

I thought Salahadin’s characterization was wonderful. For starters, it was so refreshing to see a Muslim character played by an Arab actor. Omar Sharif’s Fusha-speaking role in Hidalgo notwithstanding, such linguistically/culturally accurate casting seems rare for Hollywood. (I remember going to see The Sum of All Fears in Moscow, Russia. Ciaran Hinds’ performance as the Russian president was fine, as long as he kept his mouth shut. Why not cast a Russian to play a role that had so much Russian-speaking in it??) Massoud did a good job making Salahadin a non-cardboard-cutout character. He had one of my favorite lines in the film, in response to Balian asking what Jerusalem was worth: “Nothing…Everything.” (My other favorite line was when a Christian cleric of some kind, realizing defeat at the hands of the Muslim army was imminent, suggested the crusaders “convert to Islam, repent later.”)

Our seats were in front of a large group of women. Throughout the film, I noticed the ladies making the tongue-clicking sound of disapproval at choice moments (in Arabic, to signify dissent or disapproval, you can just click your tongue on the roof of your mouth, kind of like “tsk-tsk” in English). They clicked their tongues when certain important characters suffered or died or made bad decisions, but the tongue-clickingest moment, at least that I noticed, was when a few renegade crusaders captured Salahadin’s sister (and presumably killed her, although that was only implied, not shown).

It's amazing what a difference the surrounding audience can make when you're watching a movie, and I can't help but wonder what it would be like to watch the film in an American or European audience. I've heard that Kingdom of Heaven isn't doing spectacularly well at the US box office, but I think it's doing just fine overseas.

From Love to Murder

Being the foreigners