A Syrian man living in Canada returns to his homeland with his mistress to try to reconnect to his past in “Arwad,” an overextended drama disguised as a mood piece from husband-and-wife team Samer Najari and Dominique Chila. Shot in Canada and Tunisia, since lensing in Syria isn’t currently an option, the pic aims to address feelings of place and belonging via a stolid protagonist who leads two lives, but the characterizations are blandly handled and the plot smacks of contrivance. A tiny release in Quebec hasn’t made a dent, while outside play will depend on Canadian showcases.

The helmers divide the film into chapters that move about in time but have a clear narrative line. In the first, Ali (Ramzi Choukair) and Marie (Fanny Mallette) arrive in Ali’s hometown of Arwad, a small island off the Syrian coast. He’s left his wife and two daughters in Montreal and brought Marie here, where the sights and sounds of his youth might have a soothing effect on whatever ails him. Early on during their stay, he goes swimming at night alone and drowns. Ali’s wife, Gabrielle (Julie McClemens), is summoned from Canada to claim the body.

Chapter two shifts back in time a bit, to Montreal. Ali finds comfort with his ill mother (Dalal Ata), reminiscing about the past together and recalling how her hands used to smell of fish. She’s all solace and wisdom, but then she dies and Ali can’t cope with the life he’s built for himself, unable to open up to Gabrielle or their two sympathetic daughters. The third chapter, meant to offer some kind of cathartic wrap, is the least believable: Six months after Ali’s death, Gabrielle hosts a memorial picnic where she and Marie have a tense tete-a-tete.

“Arwad” aims for a semi-poetic contemplation of that tried-and-true saying “you can’t go home again,” with Ali discovering that returning to his roots neither brings him the security of his past nor helps him sort out his present. A better script might have been able to derive meaningful insight, but the only credible relationship is between mother and son, and the dips into soap territory, such as when Ali breaks down and tells daughter Laila (Yasmine Antabli) he’s made a big mistake, feel tonally misplaced. Choukair’s expressionless features counter sympathy and fail to convey any emotional attachment to the two women in his life.

Not shooting in Syria is of course understandable, but ignoring politics completely and acting as if the country is a quiet backwater makes no sense, leaving audiences vainly questioning when some mention of the nation’s turmoil will come into play. A final flashback to Ali dancing with his young mother is especially misguided.

Film Review: ‘Arwad’

<p>Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (competing), Jan. 27, 2014. (Also in Montreal Festival du Nouveau Cinema — competing). Running time: <b>104 MIN</b>.</p>

  • Production: <p>(Canada) A FunFilm Distribution release of a Les Productions Unite Centrale production. (International sales: FunFilm Distribution, Montreal.) Produced by Galile Marion-Gauvin, Marcel Jean, Samer Najari, Dominique Noujeim.</p>
  • Crew: <p>Directed by Samer Najari, Dominique Chila. Screenplay, Najari. Camera (color), Pierre Mignot; editor, Mathieu Bouchard-Malo; music, Robert Marcel Lepage, Radwan Ghazi Moumneh; production designer, Eric Barbeau; costume designer, Valerie Gagnon-Hamel; sound, Olivier Calvert, Sylvain Vary; associate producer, Dominique Noujeim.</p>
  • With: <p>Ramzi Choukair, Fanny Mallette, Julie McClemens, Dalal Ata, Yasmine Antabli, Angelina Fioramore. (French, Arabic, English dialogue)</p>