Free Radicals: Bouchareb Explores a Mother’s Nightmare in Topical Treatment
French director Rachid Bouchareb is no stranger to exploring the actions radicalized children have on their bewildered parents, as evidenced in his eloquent 2008 feature, London River. Whereas his earlier film dealt with the aftermath of disastrous actions, Bouchareb returns to the topical issue of Western recruitment into contemporary terrorist cells, this time centered on drama as it unfolds in The Road to Istanbul. We’ve become accustomed to these types of narratives from the perspectives of perplexed loved ones, desperately searching for explanations as to why friends or family were coerced or brainwashed into such despicable acts of violence, both domestically and abroad. In many ways, this is another statistical composite of such grim realities, but features a performance perfectly administered by actress Astrid Whettnall, who succinctly captures the desperation of a woman caught up in an unexpected nightmare.
Elisabeth (Whettnall) lives with her twenty year old daughter Elodie (Pauline Burlet) in rural Belgium, each seemingly engaged with their own lives. As Elisabeth spends most of her time with a close friend (Patricia Ide), she seems oblivious to some imperceptible changes in her daughter, who quits a women’s basketball league and suddenly disappears overnight. At first assuming her daughter will return, Elisabeth grows alarmed after days have passed without a word. Going to the police, she opens a missing person’s case, but learns from one of Elodie’s old friends she is in Cyprus with a man she fell in love with. Desperately, she seeks information from the man’s parents, who broke ties with him long ago. Eventually, the authorities inform Elisabeth of her daughter’s involvement with a terrorist cell, uncovering her allegiance via a Facebook profile of Elodie’s new identity. Devastated and confused, she puts her life on hold and sets off for Syria, eventually speaking to her daughter via Skype, who advises her mother stay put and respect her wishes.
At this point, we’ve seen countless cinematic examples of lives directly affected by terrorist activity. Usually, they’re from the perspective of loved ones, or those desperate to study, understand, or convey the phenomenon of conversion to fundamentalist factions of Islam. The Road to Istanbul feels relentlessly grim, void of the human catharsis Bouchareb injects into London River or anything resembling a justification of Elodie’s actions. But Bouchareb’s aim isn’t a testament against anyone’s rationalizations, at least not to the same degree as something more problematic and visceral, such as Ziad Doueiri’s controversial The Attack (2012). Interestingly, the film was co-written by his London River scribe Zoe Galeron and the author of the novel upon which The Attack was based, Yasmina Khadra.
Instead, this is more of a parental horror story, subverted carefully into a ripple effect as exemplified when Elisabeth confesses to her friend her feelings of estrangement towards Elodie. It’s these moments of disassociation which sets Bouchareb’s new film apart with an authentic angle. Visually, the film takes on a sort of dismal pallor from DP Benoit Chamaillard (Baise Moi; Salt of This Sea), roving over Whettnall, who seems overshadowed even in sequences wandering through sunny desert.
As Elisabeth, Astrid Whettnall is a provoking presence, shown in various states of duress between moments requiring strenuous patience or energy. Bouchareb further abolishes expectations with the powerful final moments of The Road to Istanbul, presenting a distressing request followed by an even more an astonishing response.
Reviewed on February 15 at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival – Panorama Special. 97 Mins.