Laila's Birthday

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3 out of 5 stars
Laila's Birthday
TAXI TO THE LIGHT SIDE Zoubi goes for a joyride.

Director Rashid Masharawi crams an occupied territory’s worth of social dysfunction into a day in the life of Abu Laila, an unemployed judge reduced to borrowing his brother-in-law’s taxi to make a living. Haplessly stuck behind the wheel, actor Mohammed Bakri’s beleaguered visage resembles Dennis Weaver’s in Duel, except instead of an 18-wheeler it’s the chaos pervading Palestine that’s out to get him. Despite adhering to a firm set of rules (his car features NO SMOKING and NO AK-47S ALLOWED stickers), Laila’s cab is repeatedly pressed into extraordinary service, from missile-blast victims needing swift passage to the hospital to horny teens looking for a cheap backseat.

The parade of absurdities drives the ex-judge to commandeer a loudspeaker and attempt to direct not only the population of Ramallah but also the Israeli choppers patrolling from the skies above. Unlike the perpetually gridlocked city, the narrative moves at a brisk clip, ticking incidents like a meter on overtime. This collection of vignettes mostly plays as surface-level reportage, as opposed to the poetically subtle, subtext-rich work of Masharawi’s Palestinian art-house peers Elia Suleiman and Hany Abu-Assad. Nonetheless, Masharawi’s film is a vivid passenger-seat tour of a society perpetually crashing into madness.—Kevin B. Lee

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