Qarantina -- Film Review

A melancholy foray into the stagnation of modern-day Baghdad.

ABU DHABI — In "Qarantina," his slow-moving, beautifully-lensed second feature set in contemporary Baghdad, Iraqi director Oday Rasheed ("Underexposure") again describes life in the depressing, angst-ridden city where tanks, bombs and gunfire have become part of the urban landscape. Set with claustrophobic intent inside a large house, the story of a disintegrating family forced to co-habit with a dangerous lodger often feels more like a stage play than a film. Beyond the Middle East, "Qarantina" should find most appreciation at festivals.

Almost all the action takes place behind the doors and gates of a rambling old house fallen into disrepair, where the war has obviously taken its toll. The morose patriarch Salih has committed an unspeakable sin against his teenage daughter Mariam, who is pregnant and refuses to talk or eat. The girl is defended by Salih’s attractive, much younger second wife Kerima (the convincing Alaa Najem) and his plucky little son Muhammed, who longs to go to school but has to work as a shoe-shine boy to bring in money.

Their only other source of income is a nameless lodger (Assad Abdul Majeed) whose not-so-mysterious line of work is killing people. Enigmatic, silent and glum, he fits right in with the unhappy family and has Kerima literally at his feet. Like his boss, who gives the orders, he’s a white-collar killer with ties to the university, which makes his cold-blooded murders all the more chilling. Working with a bare minimum of dialogue, Majeed gives depth to the character and his broken dreams, a target of scorn for all who know him as a man with nothing to lose and no will to live. In the midst of all this gloom and violence, the tale ends on a small but determined note of hope for survival outside the protective prison of the house.

Clearly, the film intends to hold up a mirror to Iraqi society at large, but its metaphoric quality is really the least interesting thing about it. More intriguing are the realistic glimpses of life outside the house, where director Rasheed is adept at conveying the anguishing atmosphere of occupied Baghdad. Several times the camera cuts to the gun-barrel point of view of a tank roaming the streets, with American voices inside. A professor is assassinated in a greengrocer’s while he’s buying vegetables. A bomb goes off nearby and little Muhammad doesn’t even look up from his book.

The on-target cast is a taciturn, sensitive lot, well directed by Rasheed in a measured, theatrical way. Of particular note is Osama Rasheed’s discreet cinematography, which wraps the film in an atmosphere of lost grandeur and melancholy, empty rooms.

Production companies: Directorate for Cinema & Theater-Baghdad, Enlil Film & Art, Die Basis Berlin
Cast: Assad Abdul Majeed, Alaa Nejem, Hattam Auda, Hayder Munather, Sajad Ali, Rawan Abdullah, Sami Abdel Hamid
Director /screenwriter: Oday Rasheed
Producers: Shafiq Al Mahdi, Furat Al Jamil. Executive producers: Nabil Taher, Amar Rasheed
Director of photography: Osama Rasheed
Production designer: Ali Ismail
Music: Dureed Al-Khafaji
Costumes: Jasmin Khalil Ibrahim
Editor: Salwan Kamil
Sales Agent: Furat
Unrated, 88 minutes