Although we are definitely in a better place now than when it all started, COVID-19 continues to affect most aspects of what was once considered normal life, and the film industry is no different. But productions and festivals, perpetual bedfellows that they are, have found ways to improvise, and I was fortunate enough to spend my Canada Day experiencing both first-hand at this year’s Italian Contemporary Film Festival.
It is the second year that the festival has featured the Lavazza Drive-In at Ontario Place, Toronto, first organised in response to the pandemic. As we slowly return to some semblance of normality, it was uplifting to see the public’s continuing fervour towards cinema, which was fitting of the main event that evening, Peace by Chocolate.
That’s because Peace by Chocolate is an uplifting experience in its own right, thanks in no small part to the approach taken by its director and co-writer, Jonathan Keijser. It is based on the true and widely reported story of the Hadhads, a Syrian family who emigrate as refugees to Antigonish, Nova Scotia after their chocolate factory is bombed during the war, only to re-establish their chocolatiering ways in this newfound home. As morose as certain aspects of the story might sound, particularly with the Syrian war as a backdrop, Keisjer’s melding of comedy and drama makes for a distinctively engaging approach; one that looks to a brighter future without overly dwelling on a bleaker past.
As someone who emigrated to Canada from Ireland, I find the fish-out-water approach to comedy more relatable than most might realise, and I applaud Keisjer for avoiding any notions of slapstick, which would have undermined the emotional core of the movie. On that note, it could not have worked without a central cast capable of balancing the Peace by Chocolate’s shifting beats, but its Syrian actors deftly navigate the material, which is hardly surprising given how personal this subject matter is to them.
Ayham Abou Ammar, who plays the lead role of Tareq, shoulders the weight of the movie with gusto, yet both he and Keisjer ground the character by portraying him as a flawed individual who can be blinded by his own drive, which is surprising but nonetheless admirable when you consider that the real-life Tareq was present when filming certain scenes. Yara Sabri and Najlaa Al Khamri, who play Tareq’s mother Shahnaz and sister Alaa, respectively, deliver nuanced performances, yet it is the late legendary actor Hatem Ali, playing Hadhad family patriarch Issam, who steals the show. I’m not sure if this is his final performance as an actor, but if so, it’s the perfect distillation of a seasoned thespian in total command of his art, while his character’s friendship with Antigonish local Frank (Mark Camacho) is one of the most touching elements in the entire picture.
However, the acting from some of the supporting cast is decidedly hit-or-miss, while Keisjer’s pacing is noticeably shaky at times, while the intent of certain scenes can be clear yet awkwardly executed, at least from a dramatic standpoint. Thus, Peace by Chocolate will not necessarily take the film festival circuit by storm, but the world needs inspiring movies like it now more than ever, especially when they highlight important issues like the Syrian refugee crisis.