Each month, the Indie Prof reviews a current film in the theater and a second film that is available on DVD or an instant-streaming service.
This new film directed by Canadian Ruba Nadda starts with a flourish—Toronto banker and Syrian national Adib (Alexander Siddig) finds that his daughter has gone missing in Syria. Immediately, he sets off to find her. Yes, this sounds very much like the plot of (two) recent Liam Neeson films, but Taken this is not. Writer/director Nadda imbues the film with a darkness and emotional heft that we rarely see in American action films—if we should even label this film as such. The film moves slowly at points and defies easy labels, but in the end, satisfies.
Complementing Siddig is Marisa Tomei, who plays his Syrian ex-fiancée Fatima and assists him upon arrival in Damascus. I initially feared Tomei was miscast as a Syrian woman, but she wins the part. She is brooding, angry, hurt, and charged with energy as the woman he left behind; she and Siddig have an immediate chemistry that underscores their past. We soon learn more about Adib’s backstory and why he left Fatima behind.
The tension plays out not only through the action but through the emotions of the characters—both psychological and sociological. The political is also omnipresent: as Adib and Fatima argue upon their reunion, they stand at a distance from each other. In the background, in-between them, is a banner of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The idea is obvious but powerful: the president is separating the people.
Simple touches add to the careful atmosphere—a Mary Cassatt painting in the background of Adib’s Toronto home; crossed swords hanging on the office wall of his old nemesis in Damascus; constant soldier patrols in the streets; a single shaft of light in a bathhouse. All add symbolic depth.
The film has its flaws, such as thinly drawn secondary characters and some unnecessarily claustrophobic cinematography at times. It also suffers from shooting on location in South Africa as a stand-in for Syria (both Egypt and Syria denied shooting requests), where the setting is alarmingly Western at points. The film is good, not great, but it is worth a visit to the Sie FilmCenter. Inescapeable starts March 1 at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 E. Colfax Ave.
Rarely do we get to see films directed by women. Rarer still do we get to see solid foreign films directed by women. You will like this film if you enjoyed: Incendies, Drive or In a Better World.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a quiet film that boils beneath the surface. For much of the film, we observe the characters and engage their state of mind. The pacing is deliberate, but at the same time there is an underlying menace to the story that rears up every so often, and at just the right moments. It is the work of first-time director Sean Durkin with the screen debut of actress Elizabeth Olsen. Both knock it out of the park.
The story centers on the main character, Martha, played by Olsen, who at the beginning of the film escapes from a cult where she’s been living for several years. Her sister picks her up and takes her in, and the plot proceeds to tell Martha’s story in flashbacks. The cult is a small collective living on a farm in upstate N.Y., ruled by the charismatic and dangerous Patrick (wonderfully played by John Hawkes). The similarities to the Manson “family” cult are obvious, but quietly played. The men seep out into the night to rob and harass rich homeowners. The women play domestic roles. Eventually, Martha runs away. The title of the film is derived from the multiple identities of the main character: her given name, her “cult name,” and the name all the women at the collective use when answering the phone. It also speaks to the underlying conflict within the main character herself.
The film’s strengths are in its intense character studies and its insistence on simple camerawork and other filmic elements that don’t distract from the story and the acting out of that story. Every character, no matter how small, is given a chance to live. This is a film that wants you to sit with those characters, understand their thoughts, walk in their shoes, and then feel what they feel. It asks a lot of the viewer, but it pays off—even with a very ambiguous and possibly frustrating ending. The stories of our lives don’t always end so neatly. The film is available on DVD, Comcast on-demand, and at the Denver public libraries.
You will like this film if you enjoyed Winter’s Bone, The Descendants or Take Shelter.
Vincent Piturro, PhD, teaches Cinema Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He can be reached at email@example.com.