Ali (Osamah Sami) is the son of Iraqi refugees who lives in northern Melbourne where his dad, Mahdi (Don Hany), is the beloved leader of his own mosque. Ali has a lot to live up to but is struggling with the entrance exam to study medicine at the University of Melbourne. He’s also under pressure to agree to an arranged marriage, even though he’s already besotted with Dianne (Helana Sawires, just lovely), a smart girl in stylish hijabs that he flirts with every time she comes into the service station he works at to buy milk. Ali is in the horns of a classic movie dilemma – do you follow your heart or fulfil your duty? – and the lies that he tells trying to do both make for a breezy romcom that deftly satirises Muslim marital customs such as temporary marriages, multiple wives and instant divorces. As the character of a lecherous old man explains to Ali in Farsi: the Qu’ran is so full of marvelous loopholes!
Likeable lead actor Sami co-wrote the script with veteran Aussie scribe Andrew Knight (Hacksaw Ridge), basing it closely on his real life, also recounted in his autobiography Good Muslim Boy. Born in Iran during the war with Iraq, Sami as a child witnessed awful family tragedies and struggled with his libido. In the film, when he finally gets on the plane for Melbourne with his family and gets his first glimpse of a woman removing her head scarf, it’s a moment of comic sexual epiphany. Yet his adult life in Melbourne is still proscribed by tradition, even though Mahdi is an imam with a sense of humour, casting his son as Saddam Hussein in a self-penned musical. (Another true story – there are photos of Sami in costume at the end of the film to prove it.)
Big-screen ethnic comedies have a history of playing it too broad and cheesy in Australia, all the way from They’re a Weird Mob in 1966 through to 2015’s Greek Orthodox-Muslim romance Alex & Eve. Ali’s Wedding by contrast gets its big laughs from authentic insights into the complexity and contradictions inherent in Islamic communities, with a wisdom about human nature that hits a universal sweet spot. From the first shot of a runaway tractor among bales of hay on a gleaming field – the lensing is by living legend Don MacAlpine – it’s clear that this is a prestige production. The subject matter may prevent it finding the mainstream success it deserves, but it’s an Oz comedy on a par with another famous story about a wedding that doesn’t pan out as planned. Muriel’s sister might say: You’re terrible, Ali.