Film Review | Insyriated

Described as an arresting tonic of despair, in Damascus, a mother attempts to keep her family safe as war rages and a sniper lies in wait outside her home • 4/5

Family under siege: Hiam Abbass (centre) gives a towering performance as the steely matriarch of Insyriated
Family under siege: Hiam Abbass (centre) gives a towering performance as the steely matriarch of Insyriated

First screened in Malta as part of this year’s edition of the Valletta Film Festival – with star Diamand Bou Abboud present for a screening and Q&A – the Belgian director Philippe Van Leeuw’s searing but brilliantly constructed Syria-based drama is now out on the local mainstream cinema circles for all to ‘enjoy’. Or rather, Insyriated – horrible and misleading title aside – should be taken in like a shot of sobering medicine. But neither is this arresting film a ‘chore’ to take in, nor something that should be consumed for arthouse cred or reasons of political awareness. While its topicality is undeniable, its is also a clear example of riveting, can’t-turn-away cinema.

Halima (Abboud) a Syria-bound new mother may just get a chance to flee the war-torn region with her baby, after her husband makes contact with some people that may just be able to arrange safe passage. But as he sets out to make the necessary arrangements, he is shot down from the rooftops – a sight witnessed only by her neighbour’s servant woman, who is sworn to secrecy by Oum (Hiam Abbass), who fears that any rash action from the young mother would endanger her own family by bringing the hostile forces outside closer and closer through the walls of their home. With the secret suspended over the household, Oum keeps a determined watch over everyone, but the realities of the conflict might just crumble even her steely facade.

Of course, setting a film in Syria – this one’s shot in Lebanon – comes laced with an automatic barrage of explosive possibility from the word go. There’s tons that could go wrong by venturing into those waters – the conflict is so entangled with horrid controversy that any filmmaker is bound to make some missteps – but, deftly, Leeuw keeps any political observations at arm’s length. It’s an approach that brings to mind Katheryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2011), where the intrinsic tension of the situation is enough to build a requisite amount of suspense in its dangled promise of horrid possibility. 

Scripted to perfection by Leeuw himself, the plot construction is what keeps us glued to the screen and guessing – will this makeshift family weather another attack? Will Halima make it out after all? – but the film’s true heart lies with Abbass. Not only a formidable matriarch, matched in strength by Abbass’s faultless performance, the character also embodies the film main moral quandary. A central incident – shot tastefully as it can be, without cutting down on its intrinsic horror – places her leadership decisions in stark relief, and we also get to see the formidable shell crack. 

A harrowing watch through-and-through, Insyriated remains a taut cinematic construction with an unflinching focus on what matters. Leeuw strikes the perfect balance between effective cinema and activism, crafting a tense thriller – that is actually an example of horror cinema at its best – that economically comments on political realities while never allowing us to look away. 

Matriarch, challenged: Hiam Abbass (left) and Diamand Bou Abboud
Matriarch, challenged: Hiam Abbass (left) and Diamand Bou Abboud


Insyriated is currently showing at Eden Cinemas, St Julian’s. It will also be screened at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta on October 15, 20 and 13 and November 4

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