Laila’s Birthday Is Masharawi’s Day in the Life of Ramallah


Toward the end of Palestinian filmmaker Rashid Masharawi’s
tragicomedy about daily life in his West Bank hometown, the frustrated
protagonist shakes his fists at the heavens and blames the 60-year
Israeli occupation for his woes. That’s the only direct polemic in
Laila’s Birthday, and this beguiling second feature, after the
respectfully received Ticket to Jerusalem, is all the better for
keeping its head close to the ground of the surreal business of getting
through the day in Ramallah. Veteran Israeli-Arab actor Mohammed Bakri
(whose son, Saleh, played the hunky young Chet Baker fan in The
Band’s Visit
and has a small, but significant, role here) plays Abu
Laila, an unemployed judge eking out a living as a taxi driver, who
heads out to work at the beginning of the film, charged with bringing
home a gift and a cake for his little girl’s birthday. Prickly,
unbending, and a rigid follower of rules, Abu Laila is hopelessly
ill-equipped for the bedlam of a city plagued by corruption,
inefficiency, and the occasional missile from across the border. Part
Tati, part Chaplin, part absurdist satire in the manner of Palestinian
director Elia Suleiman (Chronicle of a Disappearance),
Laila’s Birthday is beautifully shot and overlaid with a spare,
lyrical score that lends rueful emphasis to Masharawi’s exasperated
fidelity to a chronically malfunctioning city.