‘The Narrow Frame of Midnight’: Toronto Review

Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
High on style, but low on credible drama

Marie-Josée Croze and Khalid Abdalla star as sensitive souls living in the midst of everyday violence in Tala Hadid's feature debut, set in the Arab world today

As stylish, brooding and ultimately obscure as its title, The Narrow Frame of Midnight (Itar el-Layl) offers a psychological reflection on three characters who intersect in Morocco and who flow through violent tension points in the Arab world. A glum writer, an arty ex-pat and a freedom-loving child are unconvincingly mixed together in writer-director Tala Hadid's psychologically tuned feature debut. Weak on drama and credibility, the film finds its strength in some highly charged images that stick in the memory. Western audiences will appreciate the pictorial quality, but should prepare to second-guess what is happening in the storyline. More fest play is probable before ancillary takes over.

Zacaria (Khalid Abdalla of United 93, The Green Zone) is a British-born writer of mixed Moroccan and Iraqi background -- just like the filmmaker. He sets off on a quixotic quest to find and bring home his missing brother, who is a “man of God” and has been subject to torture in prison; ergo, everyone assumes he has run off to Iraq to become a jihadist. Or maybe they just have more info than the viewer is given. Portrayed as a guilt-ridden idealist, Zacaria doesn’t inspire much hope that he will spearhead a speedy rescue mission. The first thing he does is pick up a “family” of hitchhikers whose car has broken down. These are actually two kidnappers and their 7-year-old victim Aicha (Fedwa Boujouane), bought for a song from her relatives, whom they plan to sell to a rich European for his pleasure. When they ill-advisedly invite the protag to spend the night at a pal’s house on the outskirts of Casablanca, he figures out who they are--after Aicha tells him, that is.

Instead of going to the police (maybe because they have tortured his brother and can’t be trusted?), he drops Aicha off at his former girlfriend’s place in the country. Judith (Marie-Josée Croze) isn’t there, so he tells the child to introduce herself and leaves for Iraq.

Neophyte actress Boujouane is so well-cast as the little girl that she takes the role way beyond the p.c. scripting of a fearless, freedom-loving feminist in miniature. Croze, an esteemed Canadian stage thesp whose performance in Denny Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions won her the best actress award at Cannes, has a much more limited sphere of action as Judith, a French-speaking blonde woman living by herself in the Moroccan countryside, who may have lost a baby – one of the rooms is decorated as a child’s playroom. But again, it’s all guesswork on the viewer’s part. Maternally speaking, she certainly doesn't keep a very close eye on Aicha.

Even more perplexing is the outcome of Zacaria’s journey to Baghdad, which he approaches by way of scenic Istanbul and Kurdistan. He’s clearly not a man with a plan and only manages to accomplish the trek because the benign screenplay allows him to do so. More than a real character, he seems to be a symbol of the good guys’ impotence and horror when faced with evil on a vast scale. What with all the check-points and land-mines, there is ample scope for action, yet dramatic tension is perplexingly avoided in the jumpy and inconclusive narrative.

Hadid makes her strongest statements through D.P. Alexander Burov’s stark, often disorienting images. Burov, whose work has been closely associated with the distinctive style of Alexander Sokurov’s cinema (think Father and Son), brings a lyrical concreteness to the story. Inhuman apartment buildings loom over tiny figures, while overhead shots turn people into flies. An unforgettable tour of a factory floor-turned-makeshift morgue, littered with dozens of indistinguishable cadavers, rhymes with the frightening space of an empty Baghdad square that is suddenly flooded with faceless women in black chadors. 

French-Algerian actor Hocine Choutri is notable in the role of the ruthless kidnapper.

Production companies: K Films, Autonomous, Louverture Films, ASAP Films
Cast: Khalid Abdalla, Marie-Josée Croze, Fedwa Boujouane, Hocine Choutri, Majdouline  Idrissi, Hindi Zahra, Samir El Hakim, Nabil Maleh
Director-Screenwriter: Tala Hadid
Producers: Khadija Alami, Joslyn Barnes, Cat Villiers
Executive producers: Danny Glover, Sawsan Asfari, Maya Sanbar Jamo, Soren Kloch, Diloy Gulun, Aleim Johnson
Co-producers: Cedomir Kolar, Marc Baschet, Philippe Goldfain, Tala Hadid
Director of photography: Alexander Burov
Production designer: Dominique Lacloche
Editor: Joelle Hache
Sales: Wide Management

No rating, 93 minutes