The sorrow of displacement weighs heavily — very heavily — upon “The Narrow Frame of Midnight,” the feature debut of Tala Hadid, whose 2005 short, “Your Dark Hair Ihsan,” won a student Oscar. The filmmaker certainly has all the connections (just look at the producers’ list), yet this tale of a disheartened Moroccan-Iraqi searching for his missing brother while protecting a girl from white slavers achieves remarkable heights of pretension as it vainly strives for poetics. Alexander Burov’s evocative lensing works beautifully in collaborations with Alexander Sokurov, but while the moodiness is here, the genius is lacking. Fests are calling, which is the most that can be expected.

The title is derived from Walter Benjamin’s “The Origin of German Tragic Drama,” in which the philosopher discusses the tendency to set dramatic action at nighttime, with fate standing “in the narrow frame of midnight, an opening in the passage of time, in which the same ghostly image constantly appears.” Lovely imagery for sure, though one has to make major leaps of imagination to connect any of this with Hadid’s film, where neither night nor fate play much of a role. It’s more likely the helmer-scripter sought to use Benjamin’s ideas as a way of describing the limbo of displacement, in which thoughts of home and country are inescapable and the exile feels hemmed in. But that’s a lot of extrapolation for something not really worth the intellectual somersaults.

A guilt-striken Zacaria (Khalid Abdalla) searches for traces of his missing brother, Yousef, a former Marxist who shifted into jihadi territory after being imprisoned in Morocco. Nearby, 7-year-old Aicha (Fadwa Boujouane) has just been sold to Abbas (Hocine Choutri), an Algerian child trafficker with a pedophile client in France. Unaware of what’s going on, Zacaria gives them a ride, but once he understands the situation, he flees with Aicha and brings the girl to his former lover, Judith (Marie-Josee Croze), a Frenchwoman living in splendid isolation in an idyllic farmhouse. Zacaria leaves the two there as he journeys to Iraq via Turkey, looking for Yousef.

All the adults are compromised in some way: Zacaria feels he abandoned not just his brother but his homelands, and has come to make amends (not coincidentally, Hadid is also Moroccan-Iraqi). Abbas is a one-dimensional villain, while his compliant g.f., Nadia (Majdouline Idrissi), was herself a victim of child sexual abuse. Judith is the non-Arabic speaking expat, studying Fra Angelico paintings and living as if she’s in the Tuscan hills, waiting for the return of her lover. Aicha is in a prelapsarian state of grace, representing purity untouched by the horrors around her and offering redemption to characters willing to connect.

Unfortunately modulation isn’t one of Hadid’s strong suits, and apart from Aicha, the entire film is plunged into an undifferentiated glumness — why is it that the only Arabs without a sense of humor are the ones in movies? Unquestionably the issues here are of tragic proportions, yet by filling her screen with an ill-fitting assortment of ultra-serious glances, pseudo-painterly images, and over-the-top evil, the director misses out on genuine emotion. Depression is unmitigated, abandonment is total, and childhood is practically Victorian in purity. The wrenching hole of exile, the horrors of the turmoil in Iraq, are benumbed by over-intellectualized aestheticization and sullen attempts at lyricism.

Everyone moves slowly and delivers their lines in a deliberate, stultifying manner, which often elides with the slothlike camera. This is the sort of movie where a character will sit under a tree in the rain, or the camera will focus on a still life with a glass of milk. The quality of the DCP viewed rendered tonalities over-harsh, and the lighting is so carefully calibrated that the source is always apparent — even if that source makes little sense.

Film Review: ‘The Narrow Frame of Midnight’

Reviewed at Rome Film Festival (Cinema of Today), Oct. 16, 2014. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Discovery; London, Marrakech, Dubai film festivals.) Running time: <strong>92 MIN</strong>. (Original title: “Itar el-Layl”)

  • Production: (Morocco-U.K.-France) A Centre Cinematographique Marocain, Doha Film Institute presentation of a K Films, ASAP Films, Autonomous production, in association with Louverture Films. (International sales: Wide, Paris.) Produced by Khadija Alami, Joslyn Barnes, Cat Villiers. Executive producers, Danny Glover, Sawsan Asfari, Maya Sanbar Jamo, Soren Kloch, Diloy Gulun, Aleim Johnson. Coproducers, Cedomir Kolar, Marc Baschet, Philippe Goldfain, Tala Hadid.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Tala Hadid. Camera (color, HD), Alexander Burov; editor, Joelle Hache; production designer, Dominique Lacloche; art director, Delphine de Casanove; costume designer, Myriam Laraki; sound (Dolby Digital), Simou Si Mohamed, Jamie McPhee; associate producer, Louis Lewarne; assistant director, Ali Cherkaoui.
  • With: Khalid Abdalla, Marie-Josee Croze, Fadwa Boujouane, Hocine Choutri, Majdouline Idrissi, Hindi Zahra, Samir El Hakim, Nabil Maleh. (Arabic, French dialogue)  
  • Music By: