There’s something to the human spirit which makes it undying, and film has sought to capture this everlasting flame in near every genre. Whether it be in the haunted trenches of war or within the grasp of tumultuous romance, a distinctly human tenacity is always present. True stories are the best at conveying this, and outside of war stories, there are perhaps no purer and more uplifting tales in this vein than those of refugees fleeing home and making a life on a foreign shore. Jonathan Keijser’s “Peace by Chocolate” is one such film, and while there are more than a few bumps, the refugee success story at its core is an uplifting one.
This remarkable true story follows the Hadhad family, particularly father and son Issam (Hatem Ali) and Tareq (Ayham Abou Ammar). Who, along with the family matriarch, flee war-torn Syria to make their way to a small town called Antigonish in Canada. Issam was a successful chocolatier back home, so successful in fact that he owned a factory for mass production of his treats. That was until the bombs dropped and forced them from their home. In Canada, despite their newfound safety, they now face the pressures of adapting in the face of unwavering culture shock, heightened because Tareq is the only one who understands English.
There are a lot of little offshoots from here, which is the first hiccup the film faces. The main plot revolves around Issam using his talents to make a chocolate business once again, and this is by far the best plotline. However, to the side of that lie Tareq attempting to get into medical school, a rival chocolatier being run out of business, and the overhanging predicament that sees Issam’s daughter stuck in Syria. It’s a lot thrown into a story already stretched to feature-length to begin with, and while I’m sure there are elements of truth to all of it, together each section rarely mixes to form a coherent film.
There is one key reason for this, and it is the project’s greatest weakness. It’s the actors, who all put in clear efforts, only to lose their way in the same way the script does. However, there is one casting masterstroke in the case of Hatem Ali. He is at once a haunted figure desperately trying to reign his son in and constantly suffering from his inability to speak English, before revealing himself to be a loving man proud to live a life of making people happy. And Ali reflects this with a poignancy that I found particularly remarkable upon realising he was a director his whole career.
Ammar’s is much more difficult to discuss. His work here is his acting debut, and by no means is his performance a bad one. It’s just that there are certain moments where he doesn’t appear to be feeling the weight of the narrative. Towards the end of the film, Tareq’s world falls apart as he tries to cross into the USA, but in the wake of this, he only seems mildly more frustrated than he does throughout the rest of the film. It doesn’t add up.
The conclusion from this is that I think this genuinely astounding story would make a better book than it does a film. There’s too much to it, too many intricacies that the film doesn’t quite manage to grasp. My biggest issue is how it highlights the arc of Tareq. Throughout, all he wants is to leave the family business and become a doctor. His reasons for doing this draw from his experiences facing war, and it’s an evident passion that he would do anything to achieve. In fact, getting this particular point across is when Peace by Chocolate is at its best. And yet, despite getting into medical school, his family continue to trap him, and for some reason, we are supposed to feel happy for him. Again, I understand this is simply the truth of what happened, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, and it is most certainly presented as one.
Peace By Chocolate has all the right ingredients, but unfortunately, it isn’t tempered quite enough to make a successful motion picture out of the powerful true story.
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