Breaking Fast

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Can you be gay and a devout Muslim? Breaking Fast wrestles with that problem in, yes, an issue-driven drama tangling with concepts that rarely get an airing.

The title stems from the practice of breaking the dawn-to-dusk fast required of committed Muslims during Ramadan. What fasting actually means seems to vary depending on many factors, but for Mo (Haaz Sleiman) it comes down to no food, no drink and no impure thoughts. Mo is gay and out and a Muslim, one who takes his religious observances seriously. As we’re introduced to him and his partner Hassan (Patrick Sabongui), they’re in the teeth of a crisis. Hassan is not out and is currently hyper-ventilating because he thinks his very religious father might have caught wind of the fact that his son is a homosexual. It would kill him, reasons Hassan, who’s come up with a cracking solution to his problem. He’ll get married to a woman.

But never mind Hassan, he’s filmic throat-clearing. Instead, writer/director Mike Mosallam wants to tell us about the next guy to enter Mo’s life, Kal (Michael Cassidy), the hunky non-Muslim Mo meets at a party on the first day of the month of Ramadan. Breaking Fast is the story of Mo and Kal over that period, the devout gay Muslim and the accommodating non-Muslim, with a relationship built on mutual respect rather than sex, plus a shared love for the Christopher Reeve-era Superman. Kal is not called Kal for nothing. He has super powers of abstinence, if nothing else.

Mo just out of the shower
Mo than he intended

To make Mo stand out as a different type of gay man, Mosallam surrounds him, off an on, with a social circle consisting of gay characters from central casting. There is a lot of mincing and lisping, shouts of “get her”, stagey flounces and much screaming. Remarkably, one character emerges from this identigay scrum, Mo’s childhood friend Sam, with Amin El Gamal putting in a high energy and funny performance as the confidant who’s gay first and Muslim a very long way down the track.

By contrast, though none is needed to make the point, Mo is a dullard. A doctor specialising in the liver, he must be the most boring man in the gay village of West Hollywood aka WeHo. Being less a character and more an ideological position, Haaz Sleiman has no idea what to do in terms of acting to put flesh on Mo’s theoretical bones. Cassidy, on the other hand, is playing a preposterous character, so hot, it’s claimed, that Kal has trouble being taken seriously as an actor in Hollywood. To repeat: he has trouble being taken seriously as an actor because he’s so hot. In Hollywood. If this is meant to be funny something has been lost in translation. In any case Cassidy seems as ill at ease as Sleiman. Their scenes together not so much great as grate.

There is nuance in this film but it’s not to be seen in the main characters. Mo spends much of his screen time making chaste remarks about not getting aroused during Ramadan, while Kal grins graciously and helps him with the Iftar, the meal eaten once the sun has set on another day of fasting and abstinence. It’s around the edges where the real people live – Mo’s mother is devout but his father is not, while Sam is the Muslim who ticks that box only because it applies more than the others.

The platonic nature of the Mo/Kal relationship is no barrier to the inclusion of the romantic montage sequence – a couple doing goofy things together – and it’s noticeable that the less we hear of Mo and Kal and their position-taking, the more they come across as human beings. The technical assurance of the warm lighting, cool compositions and well choreographed crowd sequences are also more obvious when the prattle is muted.

So can a man be a Muslim and gay? Mo says yes, in a big speech at one point emphasising the lack of homophobia in the Qu’ran, though he’s also described as a “bottom virgin” on a couple of occasions, a detail that seems to come from a different film. This one generally keeps sexual specifics at arm’s length.

There’s nothing unusual in a story about a person seeking another person to whom they can give their heart – and more besides. What’s very rare is a story about a devout religious man doing it. Breaking Fast asserts that it’s reconciled the two, but it never feels like it actually has. The wrangle continues.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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