A horror story of our own time — the post-9/11 CIA program of illegally kidnapping suspected terrorists to countries that allow torture — is given visually powerful but dramatically less satisfying treatment in “Extraordinary Rendition.” Brit no-budgeter, shot on HD for a paltry $100,000, looks thoroughly professional on the bigscreen but, by simply focusing on the physical aspects of a single (fictionalized) case, without delving into any of the wider political or legal ramifications, hardly scratches the surface of a hot topic. Beyond fest outings, this looks likely to create few extraordinary ripples internationally.
First-time feature helmer Jim Threapleton developed the movie as a 25-page treatment, followed by extensive workshopping and improvisation during the summer ’06 shoot. Research was heavily based on the case of Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who was arrested at New York’s John F. Kennedy Intl. Airport in September 2002 and carted off to Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured for a year.
Pic starts with a bang as a beaten-up, mad-looking guy, whom the audience later learns is Zaafir Ahmadi (Omar Berdouni), a U.K. citizen of Moroccan descent, is challenged by police one night in a grungy warehouse. An intertitle sardonically quotes from a 2005 speech by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney (“Men without conscience are capable of any cruelty the human mind can imagine”), and Ahmadi’s story is underway.
Brief early scenes sketch Ahmadi’s loving relationship with his young wife, Ewa (Ania Sowinski), before he’s accosted by thugs on a London street. After being drugged and whisked away in a private jet, Ahmadi ends up chained in a sea container, where he’s threatened by more heavies with Slavic accents.
Flashbacks to Ahmadi’s life in London show him hanging out with his brother and teaching impassioned college classes on democracy and the causes of terrorism. It’s made clear that the college authorities are concerned he’s straying a tad from his academic brief.
Half an hour into the pic, Ahmadi is shipped off to some undefined Mideast country — exteriors were lensed in Spain — where he’s then seriously interrogated by the grim-faced, relentless Maro (Andy Serkis), who accuses Ahmadi of financing the struggle to build an Islamic nation.
Most shocking torture sequence shows the CIA-endorsed waterboarding method, in which a cloth is held over the victim’s face and water is poured over it. (Kudos here to stand-in Jamie Edgell for the extreme realism of this sequence.)
Once Ahmadi moves to the Mideast, pic starts flashing forward to his life in London after being released. Broken and taciturn, he seems unable to communicate even with Ewa, and their marriage suffers.
But apart from one sequence in which a caricatured true-Brit lawyer seems uninterested in taking up Ahmadi’s case, Threapleton’s script doesn’t even begin to examine the political or human-rights consequences. Given pic’s flimsy budget, this may be understandable, but after turning over a big stone, the movie denies the viewer any chance to see much of what’s underneath.
Interrogation and torture scenes are often powerfully rendered. However, by constantly cutting backward and forward in time, there’s no dramatic sense of Ahmadi’s isolation. Continual cross-cutting also diminishes the sense of relief and trauma after his sudden release.
Like the picture itself, a brief coda — showing actual footage of an Islamic demonstration outside London’s U.S. embassy — raises more questions than it answers. It can also be read two ways: either that the practice of “extraordinary rendition” has the potential to create terrorists out of innocent parties, or that the Islamic struggle goes on nonetheless.
Perfs by both Berdouni (“The Hamburg Cell,” “United 93”) and Serkis (Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings”) are fine, though Sowinski’s character is made to appear simply sulky in her final scenes. Widescreen tech package is remarkable, given the budget, with mobile handheld camerawork by d.p. Duncan Telford, restless editing by Brian Hovmand and eclectically scored music by James Edward Barker adding to the sense of unease.
A final intertitle notes that more than 1,100 people have been kidnapped in this way since September 2001, and European courts have 39 outstanding arrest warrants against CIA agents.