Directed by Ivan Grbovic
Screenplay by Sara Mishara and Ivan Grbovic
If the past two years are any indication, the face of Québec cinema has changed dramatically. Make no mistake about it, there are still plenty of fine films which feature as their central characters men and women regularly designated as ‘Québécois de souches’ (born and bred Québécois whose ancestral ties to the province go back a generation or two), but if Incendies and Monsieur Lazhar, both of which attained Oscar nominee status in consecutive years, have proved anything, it is that la Belle Province has far more cultural complexity to offer than in decades past, which in turn produces a much wider array of possible stories to share. The trend continues with writer-director Ivan Grbovic’s first feature length picture, Roméo Onze, which explores the trials and tribulations of a handicapped Montreal teen of Lebanese descent.
Rami (Ali Ammar) is living in a world all by himself. Yes, he has a family and is enrolled in a high school, but his reality is far different from the one people believe him to be living. For one, he plays hooky every day, having barely attended the first class. Second, he is plagued by a physical handicap which causes his knees to buckle significantly whenever walking. This is has only worsened what the viewer might assume is his natural propensity to be a bit of a loner, unlike his two older sisters, one of which is getting married, the other being a pretty popular girl at her own school. His father, Ziad (Joseph Bou Nassar), is a restaurant owner who works tirelessly to sustain the hopes and dreams for his children. By contrast, Rami is aimless, afflicted by pains both internal and external which he keeps to himself. His sole consolation for the boredom and awkwardness in his life comes in the form of an online chat relationship he has built with a girl living somewhere in the same city, but even in these conversations he lies in order to make himself seem much more grand and accomplished than in reality. What will happen the day his online girlfriend decides the two should hook up?
‘The script creates the basis upon which the movie can exemplify Rami’s striking isolation, but it is Grbovic’s direction which emphasizes the point with some poignant camera work and scene set-ups.
Roméo Onze is the sort of movie those who naturally gravitate towards quite, deliberately paced character studies will most likely eat up. Ivan Grbovic and co-screenwriter Sara Mishara have concocted a delicately laced exploration of one young, soon-to-be-adult’s personal battle against the anxiety of being a member of society, of interacting with it as a regular individual would. The script creates the basis upon which the movie can exemplify Rami’s striking isolation, but it is Grbovic’s direction which emphasizes the point with some poignant camera work and scene set-ups. There is a mature use of pacing and sound, interestingly enough, which highlights Rami’s struggle. Roméo is surprisingly quiet for a movie about someone in pain, but of course, when engaging in self-isolation to the degree Rami is, it is clear that the battle occurs mostly within and is therefore itself a quiet one. The only moments that hint at a reprieve of joy are accompanied by a short, beautiful piece of non-diagetic music played on a harp. It is used to terrific effect precisely because it feels so at odds with the rest of the picture, just as the moments when Rami can almost smell pleasure are at odds with much of everything else he goes through, self-inflicted or otherwise.
The film is definitely in no race to jump from scene to scene, which is mirrors the protagonist’s own physical incapability of moving around as quickly as he would otherwise like. On several occasions Grbovic will allow a scene to breath all the painful air it needs to breath in order for the viewer to digest the full extent of Rami’s unfortunate circumstances. Moments of walking on the crowded downtown streets which ironically delineate his loneliness, his empty bedroom with only the computer as company, his difficult physical exercises, his wandering in the shopping malls, displacing himself from one end of a room to the doorway which requires more time, etc. Roméo is a case of a film which purports to study an individual rather than fabricate too much story to heighten the experience. The cold, distant tone and intentionally slow pace also works as an extension of how Rami lives life in his mind and heart. For all intents and purposes the protagonist is stuck in the moment, having abandoned all forms of growth (among which social interaction is a part of), and consequently the film’s pacing remains as frustratingly steady as Rami himself. The rare sequence during which the viewer’s senses are giving a jolt occurs when he and his online girlfriend set up a date and time to finally see each other. It occurs at a very lavish, expensive hotel. Every second of that sequence is tension filled because he now has to face the facts, not only in meeting this girl but also in either pursuing his lies or revealing the truth. At one point, the anxiety grows too extreme for the teenager to bare, causing him to bale out.
‘Ammar plays on this notion of duality quite well in a performance that does not ask him to speak very much, but emphasizes body language…
Young actor Ali Ammar gives a touching and complicated performance as Rami. For one, it is difficult for the viewer not to feel for the boy. There is little question that his physical limitations have scarred him mentally. His behaviour stems in part from that reality although he is by no means bitter person because of it, hence the empathy one might feel. That being said, Rami does not help his condition either. In fact, he further deepens his troubles by making one poor decision after another, not to mention never even attempting to rectify his problems. This duality causes the audience to think twice before either loving or feeling contempt towards towards Rami. Ammar plays on this notion of duality quite well in a performance that does not ask him to speak very much, but emphasizes body language, with special attention to facial expressions. Happiness is subtle, sadness is subtle, anger is a little bit less than subtle but rarely explosive either save in one scene. The actor does well to play the emotions down. None of the supporting cast members ever gain as much screen time (ironically enough, they probably talk more than Ammar does), but two help create memorable characters: Sanda Bourenane is excellent as his similarly aged sister who tries to give him little pushes to open up, and Joseph Bou Nassar makes for a wonderfully determined and professionally minded father.
Roméo Onze is a taught little movie which does not find inspiration in melodrama nor concerns itself with over-complicating its plot. To put it bluntly, the story itself is nothing complicated at all. Whatever depth the movie owes is a result of the emotionally trying episode of the central character’s young life, depth which is explored via reserved yet smart direction and an unassuming performance from a new actor on the Québec film scene. In that regard, the film is a success.