Rochel Meshenberg, an Orthodox Jew, and Nasira Khaldi, a Muslim, become friends as first-year fourth-grade teachers at a Brooklyn public school. Their initial point in common is annoyance with their uncouth principal; later, each irritatedly tosses impediments into the traditional process of her impending arranged marriage. This charming, gentle, funny comedy—a delight from start to finish—focuses on these two live-at-homers itching toward independence, but, if only reflectively, indirectly, Arranged is as much about their fathers and the crumbling ground of tradition on which these patriarchs stand, one resolutely, the other adaptably. Diane Crespo and Stefan C. Schaefer (best film prizes at three international festivals, including Brooklyn) directed from Schaefer’s script, from a story by Schaefer and Yuta Silverman. A lack of due consideration, as well as the film’s own modest, quiet demeanor, has apparently helped most reviewers to miss the full range of Arranged’s concerns.
Abdul-Halim Khaldi moved to Brooklyn with wife and family when daughter Nasira was five; in Syria, he had been a scholar of position, whereas now, in my hometown, he is a manual laborer. But something else has helped erode his traditional authority: the sheer force of Americanness, with its emphasis on freedoms, that has all but helped to shape Nasira’s personality no matter how much insularity he has applied at home. I should add, also, Abdul-Halim is a kind, gracious man who loves his daughter very much; when Nasira chafes at the prospect of the first gentleman pushed forward as her intended, he immediately retreats. At least the absoluteness of his homefront authority is an illusion, but not—this is the point—a delusion of his. He is a Prospero-in-training, gradually ceding to his children the power that is their due in America. We are convinced of her sincerity when Nasira explains that her wearing the hijab is, for her, a matter of choice; but we still consider the contribution of her unconscious in this wardrobe decision—for instance, her love for her father; her ambivalence about striking out on her own.
For all we know, Abdul-Halim has never been righteous or absolute; it is impossible to imagine his ever being a zealot. Matan Meshenberg, Rochel’s father, is another matter. We get an indication of his rigidity when Rochel brings Nasira home, ostensibly to prepare for the next day’s classes, but must see her leave before her father returns from work. Her aunt accosts Rochel: “How could you do such a thing without asking your father?” Rochel’s parents put the matter of her bridegroom into the hands of the neighborhood shadchen, each of whose candidates Rochel adamantly rejects on the grounds of their (hilarious!) unsuitableness but also as a symbolical assault on the process itself and the patriarchalism propping this up. But, behind Rochel’s back, Nasira finds a way to make the matchmaker present for Rochel’s selection the boy she really wants—Nasira’s brother’s Jewish study-mate. There’s a glorious moment when, learning of Nasira’s behind-the-scenes meddling, Rochel considers anger as a response. (Those who consider powerful emotion as existing beyond consideration need not apply here.) But why blow up a lovely friendship—Nasira, after all, only meant to help—and her own future happiness with the man of her dreams? Rochel and Nasira both end up happy, still united, each a mother. Neither is exhausted by the definition “father’s daughter” or “husband’s wife.” There is more to each of them: what they share with one another; what they share only with God.
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