Netflix Update No. 49: “Sabah”

July 10, 2011


The 2005 Canadian film Sabah has a lot to recommend it, but nothing more potent that Arsinee Khanjian, the actress in the title role.

The film concerns a family of Syrian Muslims living in Toronto. Sabah is an unmarried 40-year-old woman who is responsible for looking after her stylish but perhaps a little hypochondriac widowed mother. Unlike most of her family, Sabah wears drab traditional Muslim clothing — something that seems to symbolize the oppression she has been subjected to by her brother Majid (Jeff Seymour) since their father died. Majid wants Sabah at their mother’s side, and he monitors Sabah’s movements and finances as though he were her father.

In an unusual act of rebellion, Sabah — who loved to swim when she was a child — begins to surreptitiously visit an indoor pool in the city, despite her brother’s instruction that a Muslim woman is not seen in a bathing suit in public. At the pool, Sabah meets a secular Christian man, Stephen — played by Shawn Doyle — who is very courteous to her but also is clearly fascinated with the timid woman from their first encounter.


The poolside meetings evolve into a sweet romance, but Sabah’s insistence on keeping the relationship a secret from her family tries Stephen’s patience. Meanwhile, Majid’s young niece defies him by refusing to accept his choice of a husband for her, as Majid wrestles with a broader family problem that he has been keeping from his mother and siblings.


This movie — sort of an Abie’s Irish Rose for the 21st century — infuses the familiar challenge of intermarriage with a well-written script and thoughtful direction, both by Ruba Nadda, a Canadian of Arab ancestry. Our only reservation about the book was that the resolution of the family’s complicated problems was a bit too sudden — especially given the earlier intransigence of Majid.

The characters are all well played, and Doyle in particular deserves credit for the nuances and subtleties he brings to the person of Stephen. But Arsinee Khanjian, who was 45 when she made this film, is irresistible in the part of Sabah. The initial vulnerability, the glimpses of fire beneath a stoic exterior, and the thrill of her growing awareness of a wider world than she has ever known make Sabah an unusually attractive figure.

This film was well received when it was introduced, and those of us who are catching up to it late can see why.


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