Jafaar (Sasson Gabay) is not a lucky man. He’s a fisherman from the Gaza Strip who seems unable to catch anything but sardines and flip-flops while his neighbors bring back huge fish and octopuses. He’s indebted to a comically belligerent shopkeeper. The Israeli army has requisitioned the roof of his house in order to watch the road below, whose strategic value seems dubious given that no one but Jafaar ever seems to use it. The soldiers stationed there spend all their time singing, which drives Jafaar nuts, and regularly drop into his house uninvited to use his bathroom. Even seagulls seem to have it in for him and use him as target practice. Then one day, Jafaar makes a big catch; unfortunately, it’s not a fish he finds in his nets, but a 110-pound Vietnamese pig.
What do you do with a pig when you can’t even touch it, let alone eat it, because your religion forbids it? Jafaar tries to sell his “big,” as he says in his broken English, to the local UN official (Ulrich Tukur, in a brief but hilarious cameo as a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown), then to kill it with a borrowed AK-47, but can’t bring himself to do it. Then he learns that people in the nearby Jewish settlement do raise pigs even though they, too, are prohibited from eating any. Yelena (Myriam Tekaïa), the local pig farmer, is only interested in Jafaar’s animal for reproduction purposes. So Jafaar starts smuggling pig sperm over the fence that separates Gaza from the settlements, all the while trying to hide the pig’s existence from the authorities and from his wife, Fatima (Baya Belal).
At its best, Sylvain Estibal’s When Pigs Have Wings is an often funny farce that doubles up as an effective, if a little clumsy, parable about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jafaar is an endearing quasi-simpleton whose ideas always seem to backfire in the most spectacular and comical ways and whose bad luck borders on the cosmic. “Allah,” he asks upon discovering the pig trapped in his nets, “what have I done to deserve this?” If Jafaar is a modern-day Job, his God definitely has a sense of humor. Gabay is the sort of actor naturally gifted with a highly expressive face, and he knows how to use it for maximum comic effect. There’s a short silent scene in which we see Jafaar go from elation to doubt to despair, all through close-ups of Gabay’s face, that is pure visual brilliance, at once hilarious and touching. That’s Jafaar in a nutshell: a little slow on the uptake and comically hopeless. He’s the antithesis of the jerky characters who seem to have taken over American comedies since The Hangover. You may laugh at his blunders, but you never stop hoping for him to eventually triumph.
The world Jafaar inhabits is similarly larger than life and absurd. In it bored Palestinian cops practice breakdancing while on duty, the local barber is a former Lebanese freedom fighter who looks like a retired Elvis impersonator, and a couple of woolen patches hastily thrown onto a pig are enough to fool most people into thinking it’s a sheep. Of course, what Estibal is getting at here is the absurdity of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and the comedy turns very black at times. Estibal never lets us forget just how oppressive Jafaar’s environment can be. There are checkpoints everywhere, manned by cops and soldiers ranging from the corrupt but sympathetic to the aggressively condescending. Jafaar’s early attempt to kill the pig is played for laughs, but the ease with which his barber friend manages to acquire an automatic rifle is disconcerting (at least to European viewers). And if Jafaar’s increasingly hopeless efforts to hide the pig never cease to be funny, there is never any doubt as to just how dire and disproportionate the consequences might be for him if he were to be found out.
As is often the case, When Pigs Have Wings loses much of its power when it tries to be more overly political and its subtext, if you will, becomes text. One day, on his way to the bathroom, one of the Israeli soldiers stationed on Jafaar’s roof notices that Fatima is watching a Brazilian telenovela he used to watch “back in Tel-Aviv” (highlighting once again that, when you get right down to it, people do basically the same things on both sides of the border). So he sits down to watch it with her. On the small screen a couple seems locked in a never-ending cycle of arguments. “They should talk with each other,” the soldier says. “He should leave her alone,” Fatima retorts. They’re both perfectly aware that they’re not talking about their soap opera anymore, and the soldier seems to acknowledge that, as the occupying force, he is in a much more comfortable position. The scene in itself is fine, but later on, as the Israeli are evicting Fatima from her home, the young soldier mentions the telenovela again. “Do you know how it ends?” he asks. “In the end, they stop arguing and get back together. If it works for the Brazilian, why can’t it work for us?” Heartfelt, but hamfisted.
In the end, Estibal is sadly unable or unwilling to fully commit to the absurdity that drives his film for most of its running time, and instead leaves us with a generic, if obviously earnest, message of peace and reconciliation. Rather than the clichéd image of hope that closes the film, I’ll remember Jafaar, briefly elevated to the rank of local celebrity for reasons I won’t spoil, chased through the streets of Gaza by an angry jihadist, making his way through a thick crowd all while absent-mindedly scribbling autographs. It’s a mad, mad world indeed.