Philippe Van Leeuw’s Insyriated (2017), which recently won an Audience Award at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival, is a claustrophobic and suspenseful portrayal of one day in a modern Damascan family’s life.
Van Leeuw both directed and wrote the screenplay for this concisely told story, which confines the action to a handful of rooms and poses its characters with an intriguing series of moral dilemmas. A Hitchcock-esque suspense is created from the outset, when the family matriarch and maid witness a tragedy they must withold from another member of the household to keep the peace. This quickly becomes difficult given the suffocating smallness of their enclosure, beset by the encroaching threat of violence, and the film could have centred entirely around this dilemma. Van Leeuw, however, clearly feels the need to add another tragedy into the mix for the feature’s climax and, though the scene in question is affecting, it’s possible that some audience members might feel he is playing on primal fears for the sake of impact.
Dialogue is kept sparse and, judging by what there is, this is perhaps the filmmaker obscuring his own weakness. Nevertheless, masterful performances from all the actors involved, many of whom are Syrian refugees, mean that too much speech would seem extraneous. Hiam Abbass shines as the lady of the house, conveying a quiet sense of horror and empathy despite the cruel decisions she is forced to make. Lebanese actress Diamand Bou Abboud shoulders the heavy responsibility of carrying the picture’s most emotionally charged scenes without veering into melodrama, and Juliette Navis does excellent work as the family’s foreign maid, depicting an intensely moral and well-rounded character with subtlety.
Insyriated owes much of its impact, however, to the work of cinematographer Virginie Surdej, who establishes a sense of terror and claustrophobia with only a few shots and makes excellent use of the restricted set. The camera fluidly follows the characters between rooms, all lit in a fashion that is both beautiful and eerie, adding to the unnerving sense of being in the eye of the storm. The sound design (Paul Heymans, Alex Goosse) assists by continuously reminding of the threats of the outside world, whereas Jean-Luc Fafchamps’s minimal score perhaps makes itself too known.
Overall, this is a well-crafted and, at this moment in history, very necessary film that treats a difficult subject with sensitivity.
Insyriated is released nationwide on 8th September 2017.
Watch the trailer for Insyriated here: