A glowering visitor to his father’s native land is plunged into a nightmare populated by characters out of central casting.
There’s a hell of a lot of testosterone suffusing “Al Medina,” but none of it put to good use. Stylistically, Omar Shargawi’s second fiction feature feels like a tired version of his debut, “Go With Peace Jamil,” all washed-out visuals and oppressive closeups, while the script is mired in stereotypes. Worse still, the half-Danish, half-Palestinian multihyphenate seems oblivious to the disturbingly anti-Muslim subtext in this noir of a half-Arab visitor to an unnamed Arab country plunged into a nightmare of imprisonment and shifty characters. Even fest possibilities are limited.
Devout Yusif (Shargawi, usually glowering) and his pregnant Danish wife, Sarah (Sarah Hjort), fly to his father’s homeland (shooting was done in Jordan), accompanied by his voiceover “Dear God, let me arrive in peace.” Obviously peace will be in short supply: The hapless couple is surrounded by aggressive street brats, a knife is pulled, and in the tussle Yusif kills a kid.
Sarah miscarries and flies back to Denmark while Yusif is put on ice. Since the guy’s colloquial Arabic isn’t very good, he’s pegged as a foreigner, raped (how novel!) and generally cut off from humanity until a prison riot offers him a means to escape. He roams the streets, fetid and semi-wild, until a Good Samaritan cafe owner (Hassan Shaer) inexplicably takes him in, much to the surprise of the guy’s wife (Nadira Omran) and daughter (Ghazal).
After getting cleaned up, Yusif encounters Dr. Rami (Ashraf Farah), a nefarious character straight out of central casting, replete with trenchcoat and French-talking whore sidekick. “I have a sensitive job for you,” he intones, and Yusif is plunged into an underworld where he may lose faith in God, not to mention humanity.
Occasionally, Shargawi throws in a half-hearted explanation, such as a call with the Danish consulate saying they can’t help a jail breaker, but overall “Al Medina” is shot through implausibilities. Aside from the narrative’s formulaic nature, there’s the additional problem of its troubling anti-Arab bias: The unnamed city is a threatening place marked by hostile stares, pimps, lurid belly dancers and traffickers wallowing in humanity’s lowest depths, punctuated by the muezzin’s call to prayer, made to sound like an ominous rallying cry that brings out mankind’s worst features.
Unvaried lensing features a jittery camera partial to overbearingly excessive closeups, the image quality ultra-textured, drained of primary colors and just plain ugly. The portentous music makes an appropriate pairing.