I fear I might suffer from a certain cultural disconnect reviewing Halkawt Mustafa’s “El Clásico,” the winner of Tribeca’s 2016 award for Best Cinematography in an International Narrative Feature Film. The film hinges on a presumption that football, or “soccer” as it’s known here in the States, is a powerful enough force that the goodwill of one of its players can literally be enough to dissuade deeply-felt prejudices and change lives.
A dwarf named Alan (Wrya Ahmed) wants to marry the love of his life, Gona (Rozhin Sharifi). However, Gona’s father refuses the match on account of Alan’s condition. So Alan and his brother Shirwan (Dana Ahmes) journey to Spain to deliver a pair of handmade Kurdish soccer shoes to Real Madrid footballer Cristiano Ronaldo. The logic which I find so odd is the idea that Gona’s father, a Real Madrid fanatic, will be so impressed by their gift that he will grant Gona’s hand in marriage.
Alan’s struggles with Gona’s father only exist to justify his odyssey across the Middle East towards Europe. “Odyssey” proves an appropriate term since the film fulfills many of the requirements for a classical epic such as a hero marked from birth (Alan and Shirwan’s dwarfism), trips to foreign lands (Baghdad and Madrid), and even a voyage to the Land of the Dead (they eventually get smuggled into Spain by hiding in a coffin). Mustafa milks every last bit of beauty he can from the Iraqi countryside—its desert wastes, its desolate roads, its ubiquitous military checkpoints.
Madrid is an even more imposing Other. They arrive to a world of darkened streets, bleary hospitals, and raucous stadiums.
“El Clásico” is pleasantly sweet, fulfilling the requisite story beats for inspirational, against-the-odds filmmaking. But it vacillates too wildly between tragedy and comedy for it to leave any real effect. It makes a crucial mistake of beginning with a flash-forward where Alan and Shirwan are stripped, beaten, and left for dead in the Iraqi desert. This is the opening for a much more somber, much more devastating tale of adversity and loss.
Score: 6 out of 10