Filmmakers might be jealous of any number of factors in Hanung Bramantyo's latest film, Ayat-ayat Cinta (Verses of Love) of: the best-seller novel of the same name from which it was adapted; ample promotion; exotic locations; and even the otherwise problematic long delayed-release which does drive curiosity.
However, these elements may pale in comparison with the advantage of endorsements by particular religious leaders in the name of a certain religion.
And this is where the record must be set straight: giving religious consideration to this film is in the same vein with fussy trivializing concerns about downplaying the religious theme in Da Vinci Code.
In other words, neither Ayat or Da Vinci are religious films. The Passion of the Christ is, and so are legendary Indonesian filmmaker Chaerul Umam's 1977 epic Al Kautsar and his 1982 critically acclaimed Titian Serambut Dibelah Tujuh (with English title, The Narrow Bridge). Each of these has a storyline which unfolds in a religious contexts, driven by religious teachings.
Despite backdrops, costumes and certain lines in Ayat undoubtedly rooted in a particular religion, the film moves its story forward from a purely love story.
The main character, Fahri (Fedi Nuril), is believably sincere in a too-good-to-be-true manner, which unsurprisingly attracts not less than four women during his stay and study in Cairo, Egypt. They are his college mate Nurul (Melanie Putria), whose high-profile family makes Fahri feels inferior; Noura (Zaskia Adya Mecca), a hapless victim of domestic violence who turns against Fahri; Maria (Carissa Putri in a somewhat mind-bogging dubbed voice), his jovial neighbor; and Aisha (Rianti Cartwright), who Fahri meets in very unlikely circumstances.
These four greatly different women, each with their own desire to love and have Fahri, provide the film with a succession of grand events that verges on melodrama.
Nothing is wrong with that of course. If we have forgiven stylish 1950s Hollywood director Douglas Sirk for over-the-top soapy dramas like "All that Heaven Allows" and "Written on the Win", ushering them into the halls of fame, similarly themes will always be welcome.
Nevertheless Ayat is beset by flaws that hijack the film's potential to become an epic classic.
The trouble starts with Hanung Bramantyo's treatment of Ayat as a burden to be borne. Indeed, it is not an easy feat to translate pages of widely read novel for the screen; in this case, his too-careful method often boomerangs. Also, in the screenplay by Salman Aristo and Ginatri S. Noerwhich point-of-view shifts unhelpfully back and forth between Aisha and Fahri.
Through his technically superb direction Hanung does his best to save it though, boosting the production values. Allan Sebastian, Hanung's frequent collaborator in art direction, does a commendable work in livening the film's interior sets with nuances of a vibrant Egypt. Add to that cinematographer Faozan Rizal, who often works with Hanung as well, whose panoramic views are a feast for the eyes.
Ayat's opening scene of flowing sands will strike film buffs as an imitation of openers in "The English Patient" or "Lawrence of Arabia". It is a soothing rip-off, though. While too much like a postcard, these scenes provide light moments to an otherwise weighty script.
The same praise, however, cannot be given to composer Tya Subijakto, whose musical score interferes with absorbing the film. She demonstrated what she did in "Sang Dewi" (The Goddess): sudden entrance of exaggerated orchestra, usually kicked off with strings seriously annoys and can reduce the intensity of carefully crafted scenes.
Given the high splendor factor, it is surprising then the film boasts fine performances from its actors. They are especially good given that Hanung has yet to prove himself an actor's director, having thus far benefited instead from the persona of his actors -- for example Nirina Zubir in both "Get Married" and "Kamulah Satu-satunya" (You're the Only One) and Ringgo Agus Rahman and Nadia Saphira in Jomblo (Singletons).
Joining the aforementioned ranks from Ayat is Fedi Nuril, who finally delivers his showmanship as every man's leading man. His unthreatening good looks benefit greatly his impossibly well-behaved character, and Fedi's understanding of his character gives him a surprising depth, which leads to a likable and charismatic turn.
Sitting nicely next to him is the often under-appreciated Rianti Cartwright, who was consistent and effortless in "Jomblo" or "Pesan dari Surga" (Messages from Heaven). As her face has to remain beneath the hijab (Islamic head scarf) most of the time, she lets her eyes do the talking, to a notable result.
Equally notable then is the film itself that, despite its shortcomings, has given a strong color in the present circus of Indonesian cinema. Doubted if it may invoke other similar films to come in the near future, but for all it's worth, Ayat is given a warm welcome in our yard, and hopefully, beyond.
(Ayat-Ayat Cinta is currently showing in nationwide 21 Cineplex cinemas. English subtitles are available at select theaters in Jakarta.)
Source: The Jakarta Post, April, 14 2008