Up and Down: The Saudian Dream at Torino

in 41st Torino International Film Festival

by Joanna Orzechowska-Bonis

Films from Saudi Arabia are still rare on European screens, such as the memorable Wadjda, directed by the first woman in the history of Saudi Arabian cinema—Haifaa Al-Mansour.  For several years, however, Saudi Arabia has been investing more and more actively in cinematographic production and in the necessary infrastructure—at the Cannes Film Festival in 2023, the Red Sea Film Foundation participated in the creation of as many as five titles of the official selection. Riyadh desires to become a privileged venue for international productions and plans to produce at least 100 films, often co-productions, in the newly built studios by 2030. For the highest Saudi authorities, film means “soft power”—in the last five years the government has changed course dramatically, opening cinemas after 35 years of total closure, creating a film festival, and allocating 64 billion dollars for the development of the entire sector. Although domestic production is still modest, it should not be forgotten that in 2006 Saudi Arabia produced only 2 feature films, and already by 2014 Wadjda was in the running for an Oscar.

This year’s competition at the 41st TFF in Torino included Mandoob, by Saudi director Ali Kalthami, which won the Achille Valdat Award. The word “Mandoob” has three meanings—it is simultaneously a person delivering packages, complaining about life accidents and blaming others for them, and a grieving person. In the case of Fahad—the protagonist of the film (fantastic Mohammed Aldokhei), who unexpectedly loses his job in a call center and just as unexpectedly has to find himself in a new reality—all aspects come into play at the same time: This man belonging to the generation of 30-40-year-olds, lonely and charged with responsibility for his sick father and newly divorced sister, discovers the world of the capital, not necessarily from the best side. Kalthami’s film combines a crime story worthy of American police movies with a subtle and insightful analysis of contemporary Saudi caste society. The director, working in the conditions of official and cultural censorship, manages to treat the sensitive topics of alcohol smuggling, women’s emancipation and liberation, omnipresent hypocrisy, and the illusory nature of the “Saudian dream” intended only for the chosen few. 

Fahad is not a real rebel—on the contrary, delighted with the life of the upper classes, he strives at all costs to achieve a more privileged social position. In vain: The loss of a permanent job means for him the beginning of a social status decline, to a large extent because of his own behavior. Fahad is a contemporary outsider, sabotaging himself, with his uneasy nature and genuine bad luck. All his attempts to get out of his social class and to achieve financial success are doomed to fail: Saudi (and not only Saudi) society doesn’t accept individuals who refuse to stay in their assigned places. “One should know his place”—this sentence turns out to be surprisingly relevant in Mandoob.  Anyone who believes that he “plays the game” is absolutely wrong: a system of social codes and barriers is watching. Success is not given to everyone, although it seems to be at hand. Fahad is a conformist who rebels out of necessity, as the heroes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton once did. Kalthami’s film, with its dynamic, well-framed shots, takes place at night—in this dark urban road-movie, the protagonist explores the labyrinths of the capital, discovering nightclubs, alcoholic gatherings in luxurious condominiums, and places where forbidden business flourishes. This world of light, beautiful women, big cars, and swimming pools contrasts in every way with his own, in which the houses are small and need to be renovated, his seriously ill father is waiting for a loan for treatment abroad, his sister is trying to open her own shop, and Fahad himself has to help his relatives after work. But at the same time he is surrounded by care, solidarity, and love—values that are increasingly rare in the competitive world of the day. He wants to go back home but his bad luck hasn’t ended, although he doesn’t know it yet.

Mandoob is a film about denial and disenchantment, based on the director’s own experience. “Fahad comes from a poor family and neighborhood in Riyadh, which represents my own childhood. I developed this sense of irony and sarcasm by dealing with everyday hardships,” says Kalthami. At the end of the film, the hero is taking a bus with a crowd of tired and poorly dressed people. This is the second face of the society—not only in Saudi Arabia.

Joanna Orzechowska-Bonis
Edited by Robert Horton