A few years after Saudi cinema made a splash with Haifa Al Mansour’s Wadjda and the Perfect Candidate, the Kingdom witnessed a major overhaul with cinemas being finally open and more support being now granted to local filmmakers eager to express their long-dormant ideas. Mandoob (Night Courier) is one of the first feature-length films to come as a result of this new era – an accessible, relatable film that may very well earn its place on the international festival circuit.
As with any emerging cinema, from a nation long accustomed to consuming films rather than making them, the film has its flaws. But filmmaker Ali Kalthami, who has long been part of the Saudi YouTube sensation Telfaz 11, manages to create a believable story with a fascinating central character that is both charming and heartbreaking.
Much more successful as a character study rather than a thriller, the film borrows from such films as Nightcrawler, delivering a fresh nocturnal experience that takes us on a journey into the Saudi nightlife as never seen before where bootlegging is only a result of crushed dreams, harrowing economic pressures and tough living conditions.
As glamorous as the Kingdom has always been presented on screen, particularly within the last few years where societal and economic changes have been simultaneously notable, the film focuses on the marginalized, living on the sidelines. From above, they can see the skyscrapers, fancy malls, glitzy hotels and overpriced restaurants, but their lives are still marked by deprivation, disproportionate job opportunities and faint chances of ever being able to climb the social ladder.
There is a particular anger that the film emits, an anger that is packaged as a tragicomic noir-ish fable that, while focusing on a singular story, manages to bring a voice to the voiceless. It’s particularly refreshing coming from one of the most conservative nations in the world, both socially and politically. And while the film is far from being pointed, it is still remarkable that one of the first Saudi new films, with local backing, is not playing it completely safe.
Fahad (Mohammed Aldokhi) is a call center agent who has to work an extra job at night to cover expenses and make a proper living. Despite working overtime, it isn’t enough as his ailing father’s medical bills are mounting additional financial burden. To make things worse, Fahas is terrible at his day job – and his superiors are watching. After an incident at work, he is forced to resign, only to find himself left with his other job: working as a food delivery-app courier (mandoob). This will definitely not be enough – and he soon realizes he has to resort to more creative, if illegal, ways to cover expenses.
It is then that Fahad finds himself caught up with the bootlegging underworld. In KSA, and as alcohol consumption is still largely prohibited, bootleggers have resorted to creating household labs where they can mix ingredients and create fake beverages that taste and smell like the real thing – and buyers don’t seem to mind as options remain limited. As Fahad enters this uncharted territory, his life takes unexpected turns – with perilous consequences.
In one of the film’s most pivotal moments, Fahad is asked to deliver a few liquor bottles at a night party at a lavish Saudi complex. As he enters the party, the camera shows us how left out Fahad feels. He is in the moment but also far from being present in it, watching partying teens on the dance floor as they drink and dance, their faces glowing with makeup and sweat. He couldn’t be more detached, scared and out of place. In a way, he will never be part of that world, even if he’s at the center of it for a few moments, delivering forbidden pleasure to yearning guests.
As with most debut features, Mandoob is clunky at times, struggling with pacing and genre (the film’s suspenseful sequences feel a bit predictable and do not pack as much of a punch as they could have), but the film ultimately comes alive thanks to a wonderful performance by Mohammed Aldokhi. The film rests on his shoulders as he brings much vulnerability and compassion to the character of Fahad whose struggles and agony couldn’t have been made more believable.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.