To a Land Unknown (2024)


To a Land Unknown Review

Danish-Palestinian director Mahdi Fleifel’s first work of fiction takes place in an ordinary town square in contemporary Athens. The square is shaded and leafy, with plenty of orange trees, but it isn’t pretty or bourgeois. Among the people hanging around are a mixture of tourists, locals and those of indeterminate status including Chatila (Mahmood Bakri) and Reda (Aram Sabbah), two young men who appear to spend a pleasant day in the city watching the world go by. They see a small boy jump to snatch an orange from a tree, then focus on an older woman sitting on a bench. Chatila confirms her as their mark; they execute a simple and well-rehearsed bag-snatching scam.

This is only the first job they will attempt together. Chatila and Reda are Palestinians stuck in Athens trying to get to Germany. The pair are cousins, and their dynamic has faint echoes of John Steinbeck’s Lenny and George, the displaced migrant workers in “Of Mice and Men,” although Reda’s vulnerability is not intellectual disability but drug dependency coupled with a naive streak that makes him more likely to be taken advantage of than seek to take advantage. By contrast, Chatila serves as the brains of the operation, coming up with various escape plans confounded by forces beyond his control, he will need reserves of determination shading into desperation to achieve his modest dream of opening a small Berlin cafe that will employ Reda and house them both as well as the rest of Chatila’s family currently languishing in a camp in Lebanon. Reda delights in hearing about this cafe, repeatedly asking like a child for Chatila to tell him what it will be like.

Both actors are terrific, though Mahmood Bakri does particularly distinguished work here, conveying the fine differences between what we gather is Chatila’s natural personality type and the notes he must play given the situation he’s in. The character is both active and reactive, required to take initiative, deal with setbacks, compromise himself morally and basically repress all but his harder sides yet Bakri finds ways to let us see more of the young man’s softness.

Reda is more transparently humane, quick to insist they should help out the young boy seen snatching an orange in the opening scene when it turns out he’s a fellow Palestinian living on the streets after being abandoned by the men who were supposed to be getting him to his aunt in Italy. Like Chaplin’s Little Tramp and Jackie Coogan’s title character in “The Kid,” their street-hustle dynamic involves an equality between them despite their age difference, and a role reversal as this boy proves more effective than his elder protector at bargaining over stolen sneakers’ price.

The feature has been put together with great empathy, and in other ways too. Fyzal Boulifa, Mahdi Fleifel and Jason McColgan’s screenplay does not endorse the myth of the “deserving poor” that is, the idea that some people in difficult situations should receive help because they are morally pure but must first prove their innocence or may never do so. It shares with Italian neorealist landmark Bicycle Thieves a priority on the dignity of its characters, but it takes this further in a sense , testing how much viewers can stick with Chatila and Reda as the script makes things increasingly higher-stakes by making their crimes more serious in an attempt to gain for themselves normal lives which most people watching probably have. What it means to struggle to hold onto your humanity when you are not being treated humanely burns brightly here.

Fleifel stays close to his characters whose relationship he tells us about through narration at the start throughout, working with DP Thodoros Mihopoulos; this helps us stay connected to what happens next instead of feeling powerless faced with such overwhelming numbers or descriptions like Chatila’s and Reda’s. The grammar of visuals is one face pulled behind closed doors, one look given across a room; body language speaking tensions aloud. This is an angry , self-assured drama that deserves many more chances for them to make important movies along these lines.

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