A mother of three tries to protect her family and houseguests in her blockaded Damascus apartment in “Insyriated,” one of those of-the-moment dramas whose powerful theme outstrips the director’s ability to realize something beyond melodrama. Set entirely in a few rooms over the course of one day as skirmishes rage and ebb around them, the film is designed as an intense ensemble piece in which the mother’s single-minded determination to ensure the safety of her charges is severely tested by outside forces. Philippe Van Leeuw’s direction (he’s better known as a cinematographer) is more fluid than his dialogue, and there’s a crudeness to certain scenes that takes the viewer out of the horror exactly when we’re meant to feel it most. The sense of suffocation remains, however, and given the subject’s topicality, “Insyriated” will likely see scattered play, especially at human-rights showcases.
Morning begins in the spacious first-floor apartment of Oum Yazan (Hiam Abbass) — her birth name is never given. The family consists of daughters Yara (Alissar Kaghadou) and Aliya (Ninar Halabi), a son Yazan (Mohammad Jihad Sleik), her father-in-law Mustafa (Mohsen Abbas), and their subcontinental maid Delhani (Juliette Navis). She’s also sheltering Halima (Diamand Abou Abboud), Selim (Moustapha Al Kar), and their newborn, neighbors bombed out of their upstairs home, as well as Yara’s boyfriend, Kareem (Elias Khatter), at least until it’s safe for him to leave. Oum Yazan’s husband is expected later that night, so until then she’s going to do all she can to ensure everyone remains out of harm’s way.
Tragedy strikes almost immediately when Selim leaves to rendezvous with a reporter who’ll get them to Lebanon, and he’s struck by a sniper in full sight of Delhani, watching from the window. The distraught maid tells her employer, but Oum Yazan forbids her to say anything to Halima, knowing the woman would run outside to retrieve the body and likely be hit by the same gunman. They can’t be sure if Selim is dead or alive, but his immobile feet can be glimpsed in the parking lot across from the building.
Not saying anything may seem cruel, but Oum Yazan understands that only tenaciousness and rigid order will keep everyone inside alive. There may not be running water, and rockets just outside keep sending everyone to cower in the narrow but protected kitchen, yet maintaining a routine may get them through another day physically unscathed. Tensions reach boiling point when two men break into the apartment; everyone is locked in the kitchen but Halima, who’s getting her baby. As she’s beaten and raped, the others can’t escape the sounds that reach them through the thin door.
Van Leeuw uses this harsh scene to pose a moral quandary: Should Oum Yazan have risked her family’s safety by opening the door and coming to Halima’s rescue, or would such action have been counterproductive? The takeaway is meant to be that the mother acted in the same protective way that all mothers are expected to behave, by protecting their young at all costs. The problem with the film isn’t that Oum Yazan appears to have lost her altruism, but that the script so calculatedly creates this moment to force the sort of moral quandary usually covered in high school ethics classes.
Is this sort of thing happening in Damascus, and Aleppo, and Mosul, and countless other war zones? Absolutely, with even greater horrors occurring on a daily basis. Yet to make it feel genuinely powerful, a screenplay needs to do more than have a little boy asking his mother if she’s going to die someday (accompanied by sappy piano music), or the kind of artificial dialogue between Halima and Selim that spoon-feeds information to audiences rather than organically conveying the characters’ thoughts. Dramatizing the nightmare now playing in Syria might get the public more emotionally involved, but like a Holocaust script that aims for sentiment and phony realism, the results reduce the tragedy to cheap TV-movie tricks.
One role escapes these problems, and that’s Delhani, played with nuance by Navis. The plight of foreign workers in Syria tends to be overlooked, so it’s refreshing to see an acknowledgment of their position in this hell. Subservient yet dignified, with her own moral compass, Delhani is the most rounded figure in the film, and the little information we’re given about her arrives in subtle doses. Apart from Abbass, Abboud, and Navis, casting was done using Syrian refugees in Lebanon, where the film was shot.
Cinematographer Virginie Surdej (“Much Loved”) fluidly follows characters about the restricted spaces, ensuring an awareness of the limitations of the apartment as well as the dangerous world just outside, where death can come in an instant. Jean-Luc Fafchamps’ minimal score is unfortunately cheesy and poorly inserted.