Director: Philippe Van Leeuw
Cast: Hiam Abbass, Diamand Bou Abboud, Juliette Navis
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Written and directed by Belgian cinematographer Philippe Van Leeuw, this gripping war drama is set in the heart of war-torn Syria and takes place within the confines of a single apartment building in Damascus. With the doors and windows barricaded, matriarch Oum Yazan (Hiam Abbass) tries her best to protect her family (including two young daughters, a younger son, her elderly father and her daughter’s boyfriend) from the war raging outside, but when intruders break into their flat, she’s forced to make an impossible decision.
The film’s knife-edge balance of suspense, violence, personal tragedy and moral quandary is set out in the opening scenes, when neighbour Selim (Moustapha Al Kar) – whose wife, Halima (Diamand Abou Abboud), and newborn child are also being sheltered by Yazan – ventures out of the building and is promptly shot by a sniper, witnessed only by Yazan’s maid, Dahani (Juliette Navis). When Yazan discovers what’s happened, she and Dahani make the decision not to tell Halima, for fear she’ll risk her own life trying to retrieve the body.
However, that’s just the precursor to the film’s key scene, which poses an agonising moral dilemma, as Yazan has to decide whether to keep her family hidden in a locked room or rescue Halima and her baby from vicious intruders. Sickening and difficult to watch, it’s an unbearably tense sequence that inspires more genuine fear than any recent horror movie and carries echoes of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games.
Abbass (The Visitor) is terrific as Yazan, struggling desperately to keep it together and maintain an illusion of calm for the sake of her family, three of whom are young children. Abboud is equally impressive as Halima, particularly during the harrowing central sequence, where she has to make her own series of impossible decisions.
Van Leeuw’s direction is extremely effective throughout, making frequent use of tight close-ups to accentuate the claustrophobia – part of the power of the invasion sequence comes from Van Leeuw’s decision to keep the camera centred on Halima, so we barely even see the face of one of the men. There’s also an admirable economy in the way he sets the entire film inside a single apartment, just as he also achieves sheer terror with the placing of a single red dot in the sniper scenes. The powerfully oppressive atmosphere is heightened by some exceptional sound design work that has bombs and gunfire constantly in the background, all at varying degrees of volume, giving the impression of the conflict happening all over the city.
The only real problem with the film is that the ending is inconclusive, but while this is initially frustrating, it reminds you there are no easy answers – and that the events depicted in the film are happening right now, in real life.
Insyriated is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial.
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