Abu Raed is a janitor at the Aman airport who lives a quiet life of a widower but is a respected man in his neighborhood. Behind his humble job and quiet life is a man whose life has not gone as he wanted, beyond the death of his wife and son, it is not clear what other tragedies have brought him to work as a janitor. What is clear is he doesn’t belong as a janitor, he is a highly educated man who spends his spare time reading such works as A Season of Migration to the North. One day he brings home a captain’s hat he finds in the garbage at the airport. One of the neighborhood children sees him and insists he is a captain and despite his reservations he begins to play the role, telling the children stories he has picked up in his readings.
The relationship with the children is what animates the movie. At first it seems he is just a kindly old man who entertains the children, but when one boy, whose father beats him, seeks to unmask him as a fraud, Abu Raed begins to draw closer to their lives. He finds, much to his disappointment, that the children are succumbing to hardships of poverty. One child is beaten by his father, another who is very smart cannot go to school because his dad makes him him sell candy on the street. Abu Raed wants to help, but he is powerless. What can a janitor do? He has been freed by what he reads, but is trapped by circumstance. He knows the two boys have no future if they continue on the way they are. He tries to help one by buying all his candy, but that just makes his father want him to sell more. His best intentions go astray.
Contrasting with the boys is Nour, a woman of thirty and a pilot for Royal Jordanian airlines. She is everything the Abu Raed is not: wealthy, young, free to travel, and very westernized. Yet she finds in him an understanding and refuge from her family whose sole goal is to marry her off. In her he sees the life he couldn’t have and through her travels, he travels.
Nour, too, becomes the means for Abu Raed to finally do something to save one of the boys and finally make up for his son who he lost at the age of four. He gets Nour to take the boy’s family in as they make a midnight escape from their home and abusive father. Abu Raed, though, does not flee with them. Instead, he meets with the father, a drunk who likes to use his fists, and tries to talk to him, help him. It is a useless gesture, more a sacrifice, but Abu Raed is a man who believes in peace and the family. It would be impossible for him to send the family into hiding if he did not try and help.
Captain Abu Raed is a movie that at its core is about family and the search for meaning without one. Both Nour and Abu Raed really don’t have one, at least one they want. For them to take in the boy and his family is a way of saving what they don’t have, but value most. While these elements make for a good film, I can’t help but wonder what happens now, after the family flees and the father is on trial for murder? Will this nicely tied up ending really hold in the end? Perhaps not, but at least while the family is safe the idea that one can save a life even when you are an old janitor is still possible.