by Roderick Conway Morris

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Violence and the Spirit in Murky Pakistan

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 1 September 2012


Mira Nair's film 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist,' which opened the 69th Venice International Film Festival, is a refreshing contrast to the movies so far engendered by the war on terror in that the central protagonist is a Pakistani Muslim.

The director drops viewers right into the action in a gripping opening sequence that cuts between the kidnapping of a middle-aged American on the streets of Lahore at the end of an evening out and a sophisticated party of music elsewhere in the city, at which virtuoso performers delight an audience with ecstatic renderings of poetry in Urdu. How these events are linked becomes clear as a misty dawn rises over the domes and minarets of the Punjabi city.

The reluctant fundamentalist of the title - the film, which is showing out of competition, is based on Mohsin Hamid's best-selling 2007 novel - is Changez Khan, a young Pakistani, played by the British actor Riz Ahmed, who is working as a university professor in Lahore, where his outspoken criticism of U.S. influence in Pakistan has won him a vociferous student following. The C.I.A. suspects he is involved with terrorists and they have him under surveillance.

After the kidnapping and the arrival of a ransom demand, with death threatened if it is not met, an American writer and journalist in Lahore, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Scheiber), meets Changez in a student cafe to interview him.

From this moment, the story unfolds in flashback, charting Changez's success story: graduation from Princeton, a prime job straight out of college, a lucrative career as a Wall Street financial analyst, and a love affair with Erica (Kate Hudson), an attractive and privileged young woman.

But after Sept. 11, 2001, the American dream he has been living turns sour. The U.S. authorities carry out intrusive checks on him, former friends and colleagues distance themselves from him, and he has the growing sensation that he is regarded as an enemy alien. He returns to his roots in Lahore.

The drama, moving in space between East and West, switches backward and forward against the ticking clock of the kidnappers' threat to execute their hostage - who turns out to be the American professor who hired Changez in Lahore - if prisoners are not released and a ransom paid.

Meanwhile, Changez finds himself facing an almost impossible dilemma: If he refuses to cooperate with the C.I.A., which thinks he may be connected to the kidnapping, they will continue to harass his family and he risks being assassinated by them. But if he is seen aiding the foreign invaders he quite likely could be murdered by local extremists.

Something more than a thriller, the film also is the personal story of one young man, Changez, whose ambitions and certainties have been radically undermined by global political events and whose character we see developing and shifting in the face of them.

Mr. Ahmed gives a powerful and nuanced performance as Changez. The supporting cast, including Kiefer Sutherland as Jim Cross, Changez's monomaniacal boss in New York, and Om Puri, that craggy-featured master of damaged dignity, as Abu, his poet father in Lahore, are also commendable.

Michael Andrews's score, embracing traditional Pakistani songs, pop, funk and rap, is also a key element of the film. Sufi verses and music of the kind deplored and persecuted by fundamentalist fanatics provide a universal and humane spiritual leitmotif running through the story.

The Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov's in-competition 'Izmena' (Betrayal) is dominated by the eerie beauty of the German actress Franziska Petri. According to the director, the origins of the plot lay in his own experience and in a newspaper article he read, about two people in a small town who, after discovering that their spouses were having an affair, murdered them both, and for a long time evaded detection.

The story involves four unnamed characters, given in the credits simply as 'she,' 'he,' 'her husband' and 'his wife.' 'She' (Ms. Petri) has a job carrying out cardiograms at a local hospital. When 'he' (Dejan Lilic) comes in by chance for a routine heart check, she tells him that 'her husband' is having an affair with 'his wife.'

At first he does not believe her, but as she guides him around the places where the lovers have their trysts, he finds himself unable to deny the truth, while developing a bizarre and erratic relationship with the bringer of these bad tidings.

The camera focuses on Ms. Petri's mesmerizing, enigmatic features with increasing intensity, as though examining an elusive coded language. But little prepares us for the sudden, unpredictable events that punctuate this strange, stripped-down drama, part film noir, part-post-Chabrolesque fantasy.

With little dialogue, and set in an unidentified Russian town with contemporary buildings and interiors of hotels and apartments of an anonymous kind that nowadays might be encountered almost anywhere in the more prosperous parts of the globe, the film is shot with almost morbid attention to detail and striking moments of atmospheric light effects by the cinematographer Oleg Lukichev.

Xavier Giannoli's in-competition 'Superstar' is described as 'freely adapted from the novel 'L'Idole' by Serge Joncour.' Martin Kazinski (Kad Merad) is a decent, ordinary fellow who lives alone in a small apartment and works in an electronic equipment recycling factory. In this Kafkaesque tale, to the quote the director, 'Martin wakes up a celebrity just as Gregor Samsa wakes up an insect in 'Metamorphoses.''

On his way to work on the subway one morning, someone calls out his name and takes a photo of him on a cellphone. Others in the carriage follow suit and by the end of the day images of Martin have gone viral, and 'without having done anything' (to borrow from the opening words of Kafka's 'Trial'), he has become a sensation overnight, hounded by paparazzi and besieged by a public that wants to take pictures of him and demands his autograph. His previously tranquil and contented existence is turned into a living hell.

At this point an ambitious reporter, Fleur (Cécile de France), manages to track Martin down and secure an exclusive interview on the television show she works for, 'Live at 10.' He goes along with it, hoping to explain that this has all been a grotesque mistake but his television appearance only serves to whip up even more hysterical interest.

Having been adored by the public and exploited by the media, in due course jealousy and suspicion of Martin Kazinski's supposed good fortune kick in. He finds himself denounced as a fraud, and even his life is in danger.

This is a sometimes-biting satire of the madness of the culture of fame and the greed, unscrupulousness and cynicism of the media. Mr. Merad's hangdog performance brings a genuine melancholy to the story, which prevents it from falling into mere farce, and the depiction of his relationship with Fleur is touching.

But ultimately, the premise of Martin's sudden, inexplicable celebrity is impossible to believe and the elaboration of the narrative too slight to sustain a feature film of this length.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024