Friday, June 09, 2017

DWF ’17: One Less God

The grim truth is no matter how much security agencies prepare, a Mumbai-style terrorist attack will still cause plenty of death and destruction. As a case in point, French law enforcement reacted to the November 2015 attacks with near tactical perfection, but it was still a horrific tragedy. In contrast, Mumbai authorities were caught flat-footed, resulting in four agonizing days of terror. The savage 2008 terrorist campaign is dramatized from the perspective of the besieged guests of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in screenwriter-director Liam Worthington’s One Less God (trailer here), which had its world premiere at the 2017 Dances with Films.

The terrorists were indeed Muslims—a fact Turkish tourist Selim would prefer to ignore. He also finds his more modern-thinking sister Eda to be an embarrassing nuisance. Thanks to her they were separated from their mother when the attacks started. They take refuge in the room of a French journalist, but his stubborn refusal to fully recognize the precariousness of their position leads to tension and quarreling.

Eventually, they join up with another group of ragtag survivors, including Sean the Irish tourist, the gut-shot elderly woman he has been caring for, and an Israeli rock star and his wife. By this time, even Selim starts to grasp the gravity of their situation. A few doors down, Atiya’s grandfather understands only too well the savagery unfolding around them, but he tries to shield her from the fear and protect her from the danger as best he can.

Die Hard­­-like films are certainly fun, but OLG makes it clear how far-fetched such confined-space action movies really are. For the Taj Mahal survivors, waiting out the terrorists was obviously their best and really only option. This is just an unrelentingly tense and emotionally devastating film that portrays the realities of terrorism in no uncertain terms.

Worthington also finds the right characterization balance that has bedeviled 9-11 films. He makes the innocent victims readily identifiable, but also down-to-earth and believably human, rather than saintly. On the other hand, the terrorists are stone cold extremists, for whom no excuses are made. Yet, he also denies them super-human status, depicting all their human warts—including for one terrorist, a persistent case of diarrhea.

In his big screen debut, Joseph Mahler Taylor might just breakout to stardom immediately for his work anchoring OLG. He brings considerable depth and feeling to the laidback, ecumenically tolerant Sean and also develops some poignantly halting romantic chemistry with Reilly O’Byrne-Inglis’s Eda. Yet, the young and preternaturally wide-eyed Mihika Rao will truly haunt viewers, becoming something akin to a cinematic poster-child for terrorism victims as the innocent Atiya.

Perhaps the most frightening thing about the 2008 siege of Mumbai is that it serves as a template for future attacks. Worthington and his cast give viewers a visceral sense of what it is like to hunted by a highly-armed, well-financed band of mass murdering terrorists. Yet, he still finds reason to hope for the best in humanity, without jarringly departing from the film’s tone or truthfulness. Very highly recommended, One Less God should have a long festival life ahead of it, after premiering at this year’s Dances With Films.