Of course the trained falcon in The Falconer is a metaphor, for the tension between freedom and constraint experienced by its characters in different ways at different points in the story. But it could also be a symbol of the film’s approach to its own narrative. It’s admirable in its restraint, gracefully swerving away from the most overwrought clichés in its path. At the same time, it’s hard not to wish it would let itself fly a bit freer.
The film is based on a real-life friendship. Tariq (Rami Zahar) and Cai (Rupert Fennessy) are teenage buddies living in the same tiny village in Oman, and working at the same ramshackle zoo. When we first meet them, they seem like two peas in a pod, splashing around on the shore and engaging in the pleasantly inane banter of longtime pals. (A favorite topic seems to be discussing what animal they’d choose to be. More metaphors!) But a casual conversation with a stranger reveals to us the unbridgeable differences between them. Tariq is a local who’ll be lucky if he gets to finish high school while helping his family pay the bills. Cai is a white Western transplant who spends his summers abroad, and who’s not only able but expected to pursue higher education outside the country.
The Bottom Line
A thoughtful, if overly restrained, exploration of cultural differences between two friends.
The Falconer is billed as the first international film to be shot entirely in Oman, and writer-directors Seanne Winslow and Adam Sjoberg, both white Westerners themselves, work hard to meet the region on its own terms. Their movie captures the beauty of Oman’s rocky hills and gentle waters with plenty of bright, natural light — a blessed change of pace from the “shithole filter” frequently employed by Western productions to frame the region as scary or exotic — and embeds itself in the low-key rhythms of everyday life, like the hum of honeybees, the chatter of bored kids, the shuffle of dancing guests at a wedding for Tariq’s sister, Alia (Noor Al Huda).
The celebratory mood of the latter event quickly sours, though, when Alia returns home just weeks later complaining of intolerable abuse. She wants a divorce, which will be expensive. Seeing few other options at his disposal, Tariq begins stealing animals from the zoo to sell on the black market, and it’s not long before he sets his sights on a falcon that Cai has already spirited out of its cage. Cai had hoped to eventually set it free, but Tariq sees the potential to rake in big bucks by selling it to a wealthy buyer as a trained bird of prey.
It’s easy to imagine a version of this premise that positions Cai as a white savior, rescuing Tariq from debt and Alia from abuse with his animal expertise. But The Falconer sidesteps the worst offenses of the formula by positioning Tariq as the protective hero and Cai as his initially reluctant accomplice, rather than the other way around. More important, it emphasizes Cai’s clueless detachment as well as his generosity. For Tariq, entering the illegal animal trade is a desperate choice born of love and obligation. Cai, on the other hand, has the luxury of deciding how involved he wants to be.
Sjoberg and Winslow approach the narrative with the same delicate caution that Cai shows his beloved falcon, shading it with muted colors and a contemplative score (by Samuel Stewart). Their script places as much importance on what characters aren’t saying as on what they are, leaning into wordless giggles, companionable silences or worried gazes into the distance. Even as the boys’ moves become bigger and bolder — at one point, they steal a car to meet a dangerous smuggler — the film is scrupulous about not sensationalizing them. The Falconer wants to keep the focus on the subtly shifting dynamic between the boys, not on the excitement (or peril) of their adventure.
But there’s a point at which reserve becomes remove, and The Falconer proves more effective on an intellectual level than an emotional one. The film ends with photos of the real Cai and Tariq smiling with their animals and with each other, and their personalities come across more vividly in those snapshots than they have in the 90 or so minutes of movie preceding them. We leave the fictionalized Cai and Tariq with a better sense of what they represent than who they actually are outside this crisis, of what’s pulling them apart than what brought them together in the first place. (They do at least fare better than Alia, who’s less a full-fledged character than a sweet-tempered plot device.) What lingers is not a celebration of the transcendent powers of friendship, but an honest dialogue about the limits of it.