A large crumbling house in Baghdad keeps its inhabitants protected from the chaos outside while figuratively trapping them in their destinies in Oday Rasheed’s melancholic, beautifully shot sophomore feature, “Qarantina.” A satisfying leap forward following the helmer’s interesting but uneven debut, “Underexposed,” new pic was plagued by difficulties including the complete loss of all sound, but post-production work in Germany, thanks in part to coin from Abu Dhabi’s Sanad fund, yielded an astonishingly seamless reconstruction. Rasheed is hoping “Qarantina” could become the first homegrown commercial release in Iraq since 1991; until then, fest auds will be a justifiably appreciative market.
The entire film is suffused with an aura of waiting, furthering a strong impression that the characters’ inability to move on is indicative of Iraq as a whole. Thankfully, the helmer avoids pushing the symbolism into something abstract, even when it becomes clear the home where most of the action takes place is a microcosm of the country.
The residents of this two-story complex are Salih (Hattam Auda) and his family, and a nameless assassin (Asaad Abdul Majeed) above. At the start, Salih’s daughter Meriam (Rawan Abdullah) hasn’t spoken for three days, but her volatile father, metaphorically emasculated by the war and occupation, can meet his family’s problems only with explosions of rage. Second wife Kerima (Alaa Najem, especially good) is sympathetic to her stepdaughter’s secret trauma, trying to help while also looking after her young son Muhannad (Sajad Ali) and carrying on an affair with the hitman upstairs.
The latter mysterious figure is paid to bump people off (the pic never explains why these particular people are chosen), including some college buddies from his past. Rasheed humanizes the assassin without glamorizing him, subtly inserting snippets of background story that drive home the sense of lost promise, especially when he’s sent to kill Ali (Asaad Amer), the husband of his former flame, Hanna (Zahra Bedan). Ali and Hanna, scientists working in an outdated lab, are representative of an entire generation of Iraqi intellectuals struggling to work in their fields, and though their screen time is brief, their inclusion speaks volumes for this often ignored yet crucial segment of society.
Two sequences from the p.o.v. of a U.S. Army vehicle aggressively patrolling the Baghdad streets remind viewers (if a reminder is even needed) of the occupation, acting as a contrast to the protective but unhappy space within the house’s bars and gates. Where so much coming out of Iraq ends on a note of gloom, “Qarantina” offers hope of escape not from the country, but from the cycle of violence. Though young Muhannad is largely inured to the disorder around him and disturbingly unfazed by guns, his attachment to his school exercise book provides one of several mollifying notes suggesting that self-determination is possible even in purgatory.
At times the conversations play more like a stage drama, and Rasheed introduces a few too many characters late in the film, but otherwise he’s crafted a tight, engrossing drama with a script that makes a statement without looking for easy answers. “I want to say what I want, not what all of you want,” Kerima tells the assassin, with an exhaustion that says as much about this particular woman as Iraq itself.
Lensing by the helmer’s talented younger brother, Osama Rasheed, has a smooth confidence that belies the difficulties of shooting in today’s Baghdad. Richly toned and, like the film itself, never overdramatic (except for a superfluous nightmare sequence), the visuals reveal a distinctive personality expertly matched to the subject. Lighting, too, is praiseworthy, attractive and artistic in a suitably unshowy manner.