La route d’Istanbul (Road to Istanbul) Review

Posted: March 22, 2016 in 2016 Berlinale, Drama, Foreign, Reviews
Tags: , , , , , ,

201611761_2_IMG_FIX_700x700“Timely” was a popular adjective to describe the film La route d’Istanbul (Road to Istanbul) at its world premiere in the Panorama section of the 2016 Berlinale Film Festival. “Recommended” or even “necessary” may now be more appropriate in light of the horrific terror attacks in Brussels of March 22.

This French/Belgian production is a small, intensely personal examination of a terrible global phenomenon: the radicalization of young Westerners and indoctrination into terrorist organizations such as ISIL. To suggest that the film has something to offer as we grapple once again with the consequences of another devastating outrage is not intended to elevate cinema as a solution for the world’s problems nor is it meant to imply that this movie, in particular, offers an answer to the question of how best to stop further attacks. Perhaps, though, La route d’Istanbul can contribute to a greater understanding of what we are confronting.

Belgium, even before the bombs exploded at the airport and in the subway, was regarded as a frontline for the fight against extremists. A disproportionate number of foreign fighters have come from this modestly sized country, best known previously for its unique linguistic and cultural delineation and its role as the capital of the European Union and the seat of NATO. The reason for Belgium as epicenter is often given as a combination of immigration and poverty, but that explanation does not suffice for the scenario covered in the film.

Why would a young girl, coming of age firmly within the comforts of the European middle class, disdain her upbringing, her parents, and her community in favor of an apocalyptic ideology that advocates violence and reduces the role of women to wives of Jihad? Are the roots in typical teenage rebellion fueled further by alienation and savvy Internet recruiting? It’s unclear, but the film’s most chilling moment occurs at the beginning when the beautiful young Belgian, Elodie (Pauline Burlet), sits in front of her webcam and silently describes her reason for joining the movement by flashing a series of placards.

In this moment, the movie offers a painful insight to what is happening, although the intensity and authenticity of the scene is not maintained throughout the film. Elodie leaves Belgium with her Muslim boyfriend in an attempt to reach Syria. Her mother, Elisabeth (Astrid Whettnall), and her godmother, Julie (Patricia Ide) follow. Director Rachid Bouchareb’s only apparent agenda is despair. Elisabeth is single-minded in her pursuit of Elodie, but her futile attempts are constantly shown in light of the conflict, never more so than when she stands on the Turkey-Syria border and witnesses the war which has drawn in her daughter.

La route d’Istanbul is flawed, but not fatally so. Bouchareb has much greater success here than with his previous effort, Two Men in Town, which featured Forest Whitaker as an ex-con who has converted to Islam and is locked into a contest of wills with the sheriff (Harvey Keitel) who sent him to prison. The message of that movie was absent rather than ambiguous. In his latest work, Bouchareb is raising an alarm, and using the mother-daughter relationship as a metaphorical target of ISIL’s attack on the West. Elisabeth’s search ends on what may strike some viewers as far too great a coincidence, but that can be overlooked by the power of the final scene.

What viewers make of La route d’Istanbul and the direction in which the conversations go when the lights come back on in the theater are of greater consequence than the film itself.

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