A Kurdish Iraqi village lad is obliged to avenge the family honor when his older sister runs away from an arranged marriage in Norwegian helmer Hisham Zaman’s drama “Before Snowfall.” Weaknesses in the script and performances, as well as stodgy staging, prevent material that should ideally play as nuanced tragedy from transcending cliche. Although ambitious (Zaman shot in four countries), this debut registers as less emotionally honest than the similarly themed “Red Heart” (2011), from Halkawt Mustafa, another Kurdish-Norwegian director. Still, “Snow’s surprise win in Gothenburg’s Nordic competition should spur an avalanche of fest invites.
After the death of his father, 16-year-old Siyar (Taher Abdullah Taher) becomes man of the house and protector of his mother and two sisters. When elder sis Nermin (Bahar Ozen) flees to Turkey with her true love rather than marry the son of the aga (village leader), Siyar feels he must track her down and kill her to restore the reputation of his family and avenge the insult to her putative fiance and his powerful father. The aga goads him on, making sure the full weight of family responsibility and guilt fall squarely on Siyar.
Siyar’s journey west involves the illegal crossing of many borders, aided by smugglers. The pic’s striking opening scene shows him in the middle of the desert, being wrapped in cellophane in preparation for submersion in a tanker full of crude oil. It reps the sole original image in a film that turns out to be full of visual platitudes.
In Istanbul, Siyar is robbed by Evin (Suzan Ilir), a shabby street urchin who turns out to be a teenage girl. The two soon form an unlikely friendship.
When the aga orders Siyar to travel on to Europe in pursuit of Nermin (who, in the meantime, has been spirited to Norway), he takes the disguised-as-a-boy Evin with him. But an incident at the Greek border turns Evin into an uncharacteristic sniveling mess, and Siyar foolishly helps the police by identifying the smugglers among the group in order to protect her, thus violating a basic code of honor.
A scenic side trip to Berlin where Evin learns some shocking news about her parentage (and acquires some new, feminine clothes) seems more dictated by co-production funds than by character development. With all the intimate time the two spend together (even chastely sharing a bedroom), it beggars belief that she has no idea of Siyar’s errand.
The screenplay, co-written by Kjell Ola Dahl and Zaman, aptly conveys how village elders and patriarchal expectation manipulate this young man with a rigid, traditional outlook and no experience of the world. However, it disappoints when it comes to showing that Siyar might have learned something from his long journey and relationship with Evin. Part of the blame falls to impassive non-pro thesp Taher, but the character’s failure to exhibit a convincing struggle with his bloodthirsty mission impairs audience sympathy.
Nevertheless, the scribes deserve kudos for a final scene back in Iraqi Kurdistan that brings the action full circle and feels more tragic than Siyar’s fate.
The cast comprises frowningly earnest Kurdish non-pros with international thesps in cameo roles. The score by David Reyes works overtime to milk emotion.
Perhaps because of the size and complexity of the production and the number of amateur thesps, Zaman’s helming style here fails to match the confidence, dynamism and credibility of his prize-winning short “Bawke.” Ditto for the camerawork by Marius Matzow Gullbrandsen, who shot the short and is lensing Zaman’s next feature, “A Letter to the King.”