Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Inescapable: Syrian Hospitality

Assad’s Syria is not exactly a family friendly tourist spot.  Unfortunately, a former secret policeman’s reticence only intrigued his grown daughter.  When she disappears in Damascus under mysterious circumstances, he must temporarily return to his former homeland and life of deception in Ruba Nadda’s Inescapable (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

While the Assads are never mentioned by name, their portraits are everywhere in Inescapable’s Damascus.  The current civil war never intrudes into the narrative, but the oppressive atmosphere is unmistakable.  Once a promising young operative Adib Abdel Kareem had to leave Syria in a hurry, for reasons he and his ex-comrade Sayid Abd Al-Aziz understand only too well.  That is why the senior intelligence officer is slightly surprised when Kareem shows up in his office, demanding he help the convicted traitor find his daughter.

Kareem already has the reluctant help of Fatima, the former teammate and lover Kareem was forced to abandon, for whom Al-Aziz has long carried a torch.  While the desperate father checks in with the Canadian embassy simply so his presence in Syria will be officially recorded, he soon discovers the smarmy consular officer Paul Ridge is actually well acquainted with his daughter.  It will become a rather tricky affair, involving a high ranking pedophile in the Syrian government and Kareem’s old Soviet spymaster colleague.

Born in Canada, the half-Syrian Nadda obviously has an affinity for the country’s culture and people, but no affection for the current government.  As in the unusually elegant Cairo Time, she sets the mood well.  Unfortunately, she is not a master of grabby thriller pacing.  As much as viewers will want to embrace Inescapable as an art-house Taken, there is simply too much back-tracking and narrative down time.  Frankly, Nadda’s screenplay probably would have benefited from some input from a genre hack.  The power struggles going on in the upper echelons of power are potentially juicy stuff, but the film tends to lose momentum in rather workaday sequences.

Alexander Siddig is a charismatic screen presence, who does a credible slow burn as Kareem.  In contrast, Marisa Tomei’s Fatima just does not have the right edginess for a femme fatale or the purposefulness of woman conspiring against a despotic regime.  In truth, it is not really clear what she is there for, besides picking up Kareem at the border.  However, Israeli Oded Fehr (a veteran of the Israeli Navy, El-Al security, and The Mummy franchise) brings some roguish style points to the film as Al-Aziz.

Largely shot in South African instead of Syria and its neighbors, for obvious reasons, Nadda and cinematographer Luc Montpellier still make it feels like it was filmed in the bazaars and back alleys of Damascus.  Indeed, the look and vibe of the picture are right on target, but the tension is sometimes lacking.  Still, Inescapable is certainly topical, earning Nadda credit for essentially scooping Hollywood.  For those hungry for Middle East intrigue, Inescapable opens this Friday (2/22) in New York at the IFC Center.