Both the title and opening voiceover of the Jordanian feature “The Alleys” make us think we’re in Naguib Mahfouz territory, evoking the backstreets of a neighborhood where “average” people lead intersected lives and everyone knows everyone else’s business — a place where, as the narrator tells it, “a story spreads like wildfire.” It’s a great model to follow, but debuting director Bassel Ghandour, who wrote and produced the superb “Theeb,” is ultimately more invested in making a dark thriller, one without the subtlety of Mahfouz or his attention to character.
Set in an eastern district of Amman, the film follows a lowlife whose desire to run away with his respectable girlfriend leads him and others to make very foolish alliances. Unattractively shot and weighed down by too many unappealing, witless characters, “The Alleys” will benefit from backing by various regional showcases including Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival, but will have difficulty connecting to more mainstream boulevards.
Ali (Emad Azmi) and Lana (Baraka Rahmani) are in love, but they have to disguise it from her mother Aseel (Nadira Omran), who frowns on Ali’s lower-class origins. She also wouldn’t approve of his business, guiding tourists to an escort bar where he gets a small fee for each client. When she gets a surveillance video of her daughter and Ali in a compromising position, together with a demand for hush money, she foolishly goes to local gangster Abbas (Munther Rayahnah) to quash the video and get Ali away from her daughter. In exchange, Aseel reluctantly agrees to doll up Abbas’ call girls in her beauty salon, even though they’ll lower the tone of her establishment.
Pressure is mounting for Lana to accept one of the suitors her mother is pushing, so Ali urges her to run away with him and get married. Just before they flee, he hits on the less-than-brilliant idea of robbing Abbas of the protection money he gathers from the neighborhood, cutting out the racketeer’s tongue during the fight. When Lana discovers Ali’s gun together with a bag full of cash, she realizes the guy she’s in love with isn’t such a great catch after all, so she bolts. Aseel confronts Ali when he tries to sneak into her apartment, leading to more bloody chicanery in tandem with Abbas’ fixation on revenge.
There are plenty of twists and turns in “The Alleys,” and perhaps Ghandour’s script means to mimic the labyrinthine passageways of old Amman, yet he fails to make us feel invested in his main characters, whose lack of common sense has no compensatory characteristics. Ali’s brutality immediately removes him from our sympathies, and Lana’s blinkered generic goodness makes her merely weak.
Aseel’s is by far the most interesting role, brought alive by Omran’s projection of steely determination, but she’s not on screen often enough. The character’s insistence on maintaining a respectable façade while compromising the values she espouses creates a nice tension that’s underdeveloped and frustratingly denied anyone else in the film. In addition, one of the region’s best actresses, Maisa Abd Elhadi (“The Reports on Sarah and Saleem”), is wasted as Hanadi, Abbas’ tough number two, her unswerving loyalty to her caricatured boss little more than a cardboard cut-out of a hard-as-nails goon.
The film’s visual design is deliberately dark, meant to convey the sense of a shadowy world where criminality spreads through ill-lit nighttime streets, an underworld hiding from daylight. As a concept it’s fine, but the tedious monochrome palette has no life to it. A final revelation regarding the identity of the narrator feels merely tossed in as a surprise rather than adding any layer of complexity or legitimate point of view.