Wednesday, October 22, 2008

[TIFFCOM 2008 Review] Signs of Love (Ayat Ayat Cinta)

[This review is pulled forward from the archive to coincide with the film’s screening at this year’s TIFFCOM.]


Playing to full houses since the day it premiered in Singapore, Ayat-Ayat Cinta piqued my interest not only because it's a movie from the region, but also because it tackles the theme of polygamy and wears religion on its sleeve. Based on a novel by Habiburrahman El Shirazy, and it being obvious that I haven't read the book, Ayat-Ayat Cinta had a lot going for it, with its attempts at tackling various issues, but it always seemed that while it goes for the jugular, it holds back, therefore not being able to deliver its punches to the full, and strangely enough, had a scene which looked like a nationalist cry for victory.

In essence, the film splits its slightly more than 2 hours runtime into 3 acts. The first which establishes all the players, and while it seemed to dive right into the action without giving much explanation, hold your horses for their backgrounds because these will come by the time the end credits roll. The middle section might seem out of place, with its centering on a court case where you the audience is put into the shoes of knowing who's the accuser and the lies being told, but again the minutes that tick by has its importance especially when tied to religion - that God always puts forth certain trials for the faithful to overcome, in some kind of make or break scenario, to see how one stands firm and forthright in one's beliefs. And finally, the part where everyone is likely to have an interest in, but one which comes too late too soon, and the story having a cop out, is the dealing of the polygamy issue.

Fahri (Fedi Nuril) is an Indonesian religious student who's studying in a prestigious religious university in Egypt. He's the all round nice guy, who's pious as he is moderate in his values, as well as being the resident stud with whom every female he has the fortune to meet, falls head over heels with. To some of us, this seems like heaven, but seriously, it's more trouble that Fahri can ever imagine. Through him, we learn a little bit more about Islam, and his little fights against extremism, and correcting those who conveniently hide behind being deliberately out of context. Naturally this charm of sincerity and standing up for the underdog brings him admirers.

First there's fellow student Nurul (Melanie Putria), whom Fahri and his friends go to for academic assistance, because of her ties with their professor. She takes a liking of Fahri because he's probably a genius to her eyes, and being the best looking amongst the cohort of course. Then there's Noura (Zaskia Adya Mecca), a poor soul who's constanly abused in public by her father, whom Fahri takes pity and rescues. For Noura, it is obvious she's in love with her knight in shining armour, while Fahri, in his heart, sincerely just took pity on her. There's Maria (Carissa Putri) of the Christian faith, one of the first Fahri meets in his student days, and as his neighbour, they share a lot of time together in studies and play, and both find good virtues with one another, coming close to ending their search for soulmates. That is, until Fahri meets Aisyah (Rianti Rhiannon Cartwright), a German muslim with whom I think most guys would go for without a doubt - someone who shares the same religion and has deep affinity for it, a loaded family so cares for material wealth takes a backseat, and probably best of all, which I think the director Hanung Bramantyo teased on purpose, is a stunner behind that veil that she wears (you can hear gasps of exasperation when trick camera angles were used to hide her facial features).

If you were Fahri, who would you choose? In keeping to the spirit of not spoiling it for you, I shan't tell too. Of course he chooses one, based on certain criteria of his own, which doesn't surprise (hey, we're guys ok?), but the manner in which it was presented, made it seem rather shallow and superficial, whence it should be something more of a deeper connection that he should feel for his wife to be. Anyway things are never rosy with a marriage, and soon enough, melodrama dictates that his marriage will be on the rocks since husband and wife hardly know each other - with a matchmade like ritual being the bridge between two hearts - and a more severe trial being put in their way, which calls for the courts to be involved.

As mentioned, Ayat-Ayat Cinta never fail in finding opportunity to talk about religion, and in fact I enjoyed such moments as its principles can be applied regardless of your own personal beliefs, as they are universal and would be in agreement with any reasonable person. And it brings to mind certain things we do too, such as the doubts that creep into the minds of even the most pious, when it seemed that the almighty had somewhat forsaken us when we are stuck in a rut that we believe couldn't happen to us since we should be in God's good books constantly for putting his sayings into practice. But I guess the old man above has his own sense of humour and share of wanting to shake things up a little to separate those who pay lip service only, from those who are truly sincere.

Given that the story's central theme is on love, you don't really get much of that until the last act which lasts not more than 20 minutes on screen. Touching on love and sacrifice, you'd wonder how those who have polygamous relationships handle the requirements of it all, and the superb time management which they supposedly possess. Juggling multiple girlfriends or dates is a piece of cake, although sometimes there's always that very few close shaves. Juggling more than one wife under the same roof, calls for some serious soul searching, and the obvious courting of trouble with a capital T. While there are those with virtues like patience, tolerance and the likes, I doubt many women out there would willingly (and this is the keyword) share their husbands with another woman. Here, it's out of circumstance to save his own rear, at least how it was played out, despite obvious clues that it wasn't, and it again serves as a reminder to think through this vowed devotion very thoroughly, before taking the plunge. It boils down to being fair, being honest and being sincere, versus what you think might be pleasing in the eyes of a deity. Again without spoiling it, you do feel for the character who has to make this call and sacrifice. Love hurts, doesn't it from time to time?

Ayat-Ayat Cinta in its separate acts, have moments which stand out and fulfill their purpose, but when strung together, you'd feel that there are plenty more it could have addressed without relegating some issues to the backseat, and of course some minor elements which could've been dropped. I guess like the relationships in the movie, it had to pick and choose its battles, and what was delivered was still engaging enough to sit through.

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