Mars at Sunrise: Film Review

The semi-effective drama brings a new flavor to its subject.

Jessica Habie views Middle East conflict through the unusual perspectives of a soldier and his prisoner.

Jessica Habie's first feature, Mars at Sunrise, takes a more art-centric view of Israel/Palestine conflict than most of its peers. Though the field is hardly lacking for realism of high artistic caliber or for allegories more successful than this one, Habie's expressionistic, experimental film would have no point without the artistic obsessions of the two characters enacting its standoff. Though hardly the stuff of an arthouse hit, it will find admirers on the circuit and displays a promising, if still developing, filmmaking voice.

At a checkpoint in Ramallah, a Palestinian artist named Khaled (Ali Suliman) and his American traveling companion (Haale Gafori) catch a glimpse of Eyal (Guy El Hanan), an Israeli soldier who doesn't see them. In extended, sometimes intentionally confusing flashbacks, Khaled and the film explain how, two years ago, Eyal all but destroyed Khaled's life. Having been kicked out of his family's home to make way for Israelis, the artist was kidnapped, interrogated and tortured in a long attempt to make him spy on fellow intellectuals.

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Khaled refuses, and we experience the extreme disorientation brought on by hunger, isolation, and sleep deprivation. Which of the scenes between the two men really take place, and which -- like ones in which their conversation is mediated through and antique television -- are hallucinatory representations of their metaphor-ready battle of wills?

Though Habie's stylistic excursions flirt with pretentiousness and sometimes don't slide together in the most satisfying way, her approach is backed up by the introduction of Eyal's own creative sensibilities: The military man yearns to express himself as his captive does, and needlessly destroys the latter's paintings even as he expresses admiration for them. Both men offer psychologically supple performances, but Guy El Hanan, in his first feature role, deserves much of the credit for making it difficult not to offer the villain some degree of compassion.

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The film's complicated sympathies get even more tangled when we flash back to the present tense, with an ambiguous confrontation that doesn't fully satisfy our narrative needs and leads in to Habie's most questionable stylistic gestures. Still, the picture leaves an afterimage, adding two more imaginary points of view in a conflict whose literal details and texture are never the point.

Production Company: Eyes Infinite

Cast: Ali Suliman, Guy Elhanan, Halle Gafori, Maisam Massri

Director-Screenwriter: Jessica Habie

Producers: Baher Agbariya

Director of photography: Xavier J. Cunilleras

Production designer: Nael Kanj

Music: Tamir Muskat

Costume designer: Nardeen Sruji

Editor: Luis Carballar, ErezOs

No rating, 74 minutes