EmptyToronto International Film Festival
TORONTO -- A shaggy-dog tale with a borderline-xenophobic punchline, "The Passage" begins promisingly but falters in the end. A tough sell that doesn't fit well into marketing niches, theatrical prospects are limited.
Set near the Atlas mountains in Morocco, the picture centers on Luke, a Westerner trying to forget lost love on a months-long vacation with best mate Adam. The pair are mismatched as travelers, with Adam out partying every night while Luke gets up early to haunt bazaars and digest the sights. Out one evening, he meets Zahra, a beautiful woman who's happy to translate for him and offers to take him to one of her favorite places in town -- which is just down this maze of twisting alleys...
The pair are mugged, but our initial assumption that Adam's being scammed is discouraged when they get away unharmed and with wallets intact. In the aftermath, Zahra insists that Adam let her demonstrate that her country isn't all bad by taking him up to a perfect spot in the mountains -- the only catch being that, if they want to see the unimaginable colors of an Atlas sunset, they'll miss the last bus back and have to share a hotel room together. Come to think of it, that's not so unappealing.
But one thing after another goes wrong in the mountaintop village until, in the middle of the night, Adam stumbles onto a labyrinth of tunnels. An effectively tense mood overtakes the film, with Adam and Zahra trying to navigate the darkness with a pocket full of candles and, when those run out, bursts of the flash from his camera. Effectively silent at first, then enhanced by subtly creepy music, the sequence works well.
Trouble is, it comes halfway through the film. If "The Passage" is sold based on the idea that what awaits in those tunnels is a horror film, genre fans will be bored to tears by the time the characters get there (and will be underwhelmed at what awaits). If sold as an artsier tale that takes a dark turn, viewers will likely find the final act a cheap shot.
The movie's split-personality frustrates, especially since cast and crew do their jobs perfectly well. As Luke, Stephen Dorff projects the kind of introspection we want in a personal-journey travelogue; director Mark Heller and crew create a look and feel appropriate to that. The difficulty lies in the structure and tone employed by first-time screenwriter Neil Jackson (who also plays Adam), who has taken a nugget of an idea and tried to stretch it into a feature it doesn't fit.
Director: Mark Heller
Writer: Neil Jackson
Producers: Lynette Howell, Jeremy Kipp Walker
Executive producer: Doug Dey
Director of photography: Jim Denault
Production designer: Marla Altschuler
Music: Tim Williams
Costume designer: Nic Ede
Editor: Jonathan Del Gatto
Luke: Stephen Dorff
Adam: Neil Jackson
Zahra: Sarai Givaty
Running time -- 95 minutes
No MPAA rating