Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 26, 2023 12:38 pm 
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The fire next time

A vast semi-abandoned construction site in a northern suburb of Tunis known as The Gardens of Carthage is the location for a series of lonely, haunting murders or suicides by fire in this moody, well-shot film from Tunisia. It will not satisfy police procedural fans, but those who like sophisticated horror movies may very well be intrigued by its roiling atmosphere of political corruption, scary magic and inexplicable evil slowly growing out of control. In the center of it is an appealing young woman investigator, Fatma Fatma Oussaifi), the only cop honest or persistent enough to carry on when one death leads to another, then two more, and the supervisor wants it hushed up and some powerless "suspects" put away.

Things are coming to a boil here and nothing is ever resolved; that is the point. Tellingly a starting point - an event locals would inevitably think of - is the 2010 death of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who set fire to himself to protest exploitative economic conditions and thereby started the "Arab Spring" suite of revolts throughout the Middle East. An implication is that those revolutions curdled, leaving a suicidal madness. But the history is alive and present because while Fatma is of the new regime, her older associate goes back to the old, corrupt one. On the current agenda, mistreatment of migrants is alluded to, as well as radicalization spread by social neetworks.

A pulsating sound design and nervous score are central; so are beautifully composed images of the empty building sites and half-completed buildings by cinematographers Hazem Berrabah and Amin Messadi. They are frankly gorgeous and we could lose ourselves in them and in the moody atmosphere, which never lets up. It's rather bold, not to say dangerous, of the filmmaker to include scenes of prayer in a mosque and suggest that an evil-doer may be a worshiper there. (It also seems there are posh hotels in the area now, whose management might not like this film.) With that this is a highly urban, chilly and alienated atmosphere, and a lot of the shots of people are from a considerable distance.

Chebbi works things up to more and more of a fever pitch. When some humble workmen (about the be jailed for one of the deaths, but innocent) tell Fatma the mysterious man seen with several of the victims - who appear to strip naked and die of immolation without a fight - has "given them fire," rather than "set them on fire," we begin to know there is something supernatural - enough said. It's essential to keep the mystery.

An excellent, highly sophisticated cross-genre film, fine if we accept that there is a visionary climax rather than a solution to the riddle. It's a little more atmosphere than substance but that atmosphere rich and well sustained.

أشكال / Ashkal: The Tunisian Investigation, 94 mins. debuted at Cannes Directors Fortnight May 25, 2022; Neufchatel, Lisbon, Toronto, Naumur, and a dozen other international festivals followed. It won the main prize at the Pan-African festival in Ouagadougou. Released in France as Ashkal, l'enquête de Tunis Jan. 25, 2022, AlloCiné press rating 3.7 (74%).Screened for this review as part of New Directors/New Films (NYC), 2023. A Yellow Veil Pictures release.

Tuesday, April 4
8:30pm, MoMA T2 (Q&A with Youssef Chebbi)
Wednesday, April 5
6:00pm, FLC Walter Reade Theater (Q&A with Youssef Chebbi)

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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