Belgium/France 2017 86 mins Subtitles Dir: Philippe Van Leeuw Cast: Hiam Abbass, Diamand Bou Abboud, Juliette Navis, Mohsen Abbas, Moustapha Al Kar, Alissar Kaghadou
Single location thrillers such as Buried, Devil and Phone Booth tend to be high-concept affairs. But as Israeli director Samuel Maoz demonstrated with 2009’s tense and wrenching Lebanon, this claustrophobic format can also be used effectively to convey the horrors of modern warfare. Belgian cinematographer-turned-writer/director Philippe Van Leeuw follows his Rwandan genocide flick The Day God Walked Away (unreleased in the UK) with another tough, intense real-life war zone drama that narrows its focus to individual experiences. Unfolding over the course of a single day in a cramped, over-populated apartment, Insyriated also incorporates elements of the home invasion genre as it sets up a brace of moral dilemmas during its 80 brisk minutes.
The first of these is established in the opening scenes. Young mother Halima (Diamand Bou Abboud), her husband Selim (Moustapha Al Kar) and their newborn baby have been promised safe passage out of war-torn Damascus by a French journalist. But first, Selim has agreed to help the reporter set up a series of interviews. As he scuttles out of their apartment block, he’s picked off by a sniper and falls to the ground, his body partially concealed. The only person to witness this is Delhani (Juliette Navis) the maid. Shocked and distraught, she tells her employer, Oum Yazan (Hiam Abbass). The stern middle class matriarch immediately instructs her to keep quiet about what she has seen.
Cruel and immoral? Possibly, but we soon start to see things from her perspective. Oum, her son and two daughters have barricaded themselves into their apartment in the shattered, mostly unoccupied block as she awaits her husband’s return while civil war rages around them. She gave shelter to Halima and Selim after their own flat on an upper floor was shelled. Also present is the boyfriend of one of her daughters and her elderly father-in-law. Strict and somewhat intimidating, Oum sees the maintenance of domestic routine as the best way to ensure her household’s survival under siege – even when there’s no electricity or running water, the toilets are starting to stink, mobile phone reception is sporadic at best, and their only recourse in the event of a break-in is to hide in the kitchen.
If some of the ensuing melodrama feels a tad contrived, with plenty of telegraphed plotting and an overly manipulative score, Van Leeuw directs with considerable style, making effective use of hand-held cameras to convey the cramped conditions in which his characters are constrained. This is also a rare war drama dominated by three powerful female performances. Indeed, the uncharitable might argue that these are better than the script deserves. Juliette Navis excels in a small role as the ethically conflicted maid, while veteran Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass – soon to be seen in Blade Runner 2049 – is perfectly cast as Oum, hinting at the fear and vulnerability beneath her controlling demeanour. But the film really belongs to Lebanese actress Diamand Bou Abboud, making what must surely be an international breakthrough with her harrowing performance as Halima, whose multiple ordeals are captured in frequently uncomfortable close-up.