Gloom, deployed as a storytelling tactic, can exert a strange, unsettling pull when it’s as capably and beautifully conveyed as in Syrian director Ameer Fakher Eldin’s “The Stranger,” recently announced as Palestine’s international Oscar entry. A granular depiction of oppression as a kind of inescapable inheritance handed down from father to son, with mothers and daughters its peripheral, persevering survivors, this striking debut makes its Golan Heights setting — the contested region bordering Syria, Lebanon and Israel — into a place of gulfs, grudges and unquiet ghosts.
But it is also attuned to the bleak grandeur of the landscapes in this cinematically little-seen region, and its rich, painterly images, appropriately hemmed into boxy Academy ratio, should make “The Stranger” as much a calling card for its cinematographer, Niklas Lindschau, as for Eldin. If not more so: Whenever Eldin’s screenplay gets too ponderous, when the pacing lags or the storytelling withholds too much, there is always a surprising composition to pin our attention. An elderly woman folding linen is briefly a Vermeer. A far-off mountainside in fall, speckled with ruined dwellings, looks fleetingly like a Klimt pattern. And there are shades of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s peerless “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” in how a tense car journey is relayed in a vast wide shot in which headlamps trace the S-bends of a hilly road at night.
The overriding visual motifs that wend their way through the film, however, are the banks of mist that roll across the autumnal landscapes and the clouds of smoke that drift up from stoves and firesides. Like the ever-present rumble of far-off gunfire, they serve two purposes: making the dour and frequently drunk protagonist, Adnan (Ashraf Barhoum) look even lonelier and more lost, yet also reminding us of a natural world that doesn’t understand the area’s artificial and political divides. Smoke, after all, drifts across borders and checkpoints at will, in a way that Adnan and his family cannot.
Adnan is husband to Layla (Amal Kais) and father to a young daughter (Cila Abusaleh). He’s also an unlicensed doctor who never finished his studies and now ekes a living tending to a dwindling orchard and a handful of scrappy-looking farm animals: a few chickens, an aging dairy cow whose milk comes clotted and bloody. He has been disinherited by his father (charismatic Palestinian actor Mohammad Bakri), to whom he is a constant disappointment, and, sunk into a trough of bitterness, seems largely numb to the soft entreaties of his loving wife and even the quiet, saucer-eyed fearfulness of his little girl. He gets drunk with his doggedly loyal friend Akram (Hitham Omari) and pursues a hare-brained scheme to save his apple crop from the oncoming frost by setting up a stove in the orchard.
Adnan’s passivity and surliness make him a difficult character to root for, especially during the film’s slow first half, when it’s hard to gauge how much of his paralysis springs from the injustice of a trapped and fraught political situation and how much from his own stubbornness. Adnan is a man so proud of his righteous misery that he rebuffs any attempt to assuage it, even when it comes from the few people who still love him.
The drama tightens once he happens upon an injured man on the other side of an unpatrolled stretch of the barbed-wire border fence. Despite not knowing whether the man is friend or foe, and perhaps responding to some deep-buried Hippocratic urge, Adnan enlists Akram and another far more reluctant friend, Hani (Amer Hlehel), to bring him back to the farm, where Adnan tends to his injuries. As the stranger — though perhaps not the one to whom the title refers — regains consciousness, the two men share some terse interaction that gives a cold, often unforgiving film its spark of human warmth.
As a story of one man’s odyssey through a chilly limbo to a desperately slender sort of redemption, “The Stranger” is only partially successful, too often getting lost in the weeds of introspection, too reliant on long, brooding silences that erupt into brief, ineffectual confrontations. But as a mood piece evoking a specific atmosphere of atrophied idealism, in which relationships and psyches fray under the unseen but pervasive oppressiveness of ongoing occupation, Eldin’s superbly crafted debut has an undeniable power. It might not solve the intractable political issues of the region, but it does shine a light into the murk, briefly illuminating the plight of those stumbling through the fog of war.
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