Syrian film makes a leap into the spotlight with the intelligent political drama “The Long Night.” Writer-producer Haitham Hakki’s brave script looks at the intense self-questioning of families whose loved ones are released after 20 years of imprisonment, and while the story has parallels with life in all repressive regimes, it’s personal enough to avoid becoming a mere template of metaphors. Improved subtitles would give director Hatem Ali’s pic a greater chance at winning over the fest auds it deserves; feature prize at Taormina should help alert programmers to its merits.
Hakki and Ali are best known for their groundbreaking miniseries, combining cinematic forms with topics that often arouse the censors’ ire. Originally a helmer himself, Hakki has emerged as the independent hope of Syria and beyond, also acting as producer on Ahmed Rashwan’s intriguing Egyptian feature “Basra.” Ali, too, is an award-winning helmer of innovative smallscreen fare; his “King Farouk,” among others, was a huge success. Though “The Long Night” is his feature debut, Ali’s sophomore entry, the musical “Silina,” was released first, in March.
Four older prisoners, all of whom were jailed for unspecified acts of conscience, learn that three of them will be released that very night. After two decades in the slammer, the elder statesman of the group, Karim (Khaled Taja, strong), briefly savors the air of freedom before hiring a taxi for the long ride to his old home.
That home is now inhabited by his eldest son, Nidal (Zohear Abed Alkareem), who has mixed feelings about his father’s return. Nidal has benefited socially and financially by not making waves, and he’s still bitter over what he considers his father’s preference for country over family.
Nidal’s sister Uruba (Amal Arafa) is married to Fadi (Fadi Sbeh), the son of Karim’s former best friend, now an active collaborator with the regime and the man who engineered Karim’s imprisonment. Only Karim’s youngest son, Kifah (Basel Khayat), inherited his father’s political leanings, his righteous anger made more raw by his siblings’ perceived moral cowardice. While the family engages in soul-searching, Karim and his cabbie slowly wend their way home.
Bookending the film are two monologues from Shakespeare, read by the prisoner (Najah Safkoni) who remains. The second speech — from “The Tempest,” when Prospero bids farewell to his isle of exile and prepares to rejoin the world — conveys a sense of hope not very apparent in the rest of the film, with its implication that death is necessary before the nation can move on.
This is a bold message for any film coming from the Middle East, and it remains to be seen whether “The Long Night” will be distributed theatrically at home, even given the regime’s recent relaxation. Ali’s cinematic style is far more stripped-down than his miniseries roots would suggest, and at times the pic feels like a filmed theater piece. A few family members of other prisoners are worked in — particularly a movingly portrayed couple (helmer Ali and Aniseh Dawood) living in exile in Paris. Still, the added players can be confusing, especially due to the inadequate subtitles.
Pacing is slow and deliberate, yet Ali conjures tension and a deep feeling of loss, as well as fear and the kind of hopefulness few dare to trust. While there are thematic reasons for the pic’s nighttime shooting, it also works well within the obvious budgetary constraints. Transfer from digital, processed in Moscow, is adequate.