August 10, 2007 / 1:33 AM / 13 years ago

"Extraordinary Rendition" a powerful debut film

LOCARNO, Switzerland (Hollywood Reporter) - First-time British director Jim Threapleton’s tough-minded polemic “Extraordinary Rendition” makes the case that when people are illegally arrested and tortured on flimsy evidence, it tends to radicalize them.

Put together in the Mike Leigh fashion of workshops involving the director, producer Andy Noble and cast, the film has vital energy and a constant undercurrent of threat.

At just 77 minutes, however, its documentary approach leaves several unanswered questions that might have been addressed if the film, which is fictional, had been developed with more of an eye to dramatic structure. As a result, it is more likely to thrive on television than in theaters.

Omar Berdouni (“United 93,” “The Hamburg Cell”) plays Zaafir, a political lecturer at a British university, who has a contented home life with a loving wife, Eva (Ania Sowinksi of TV’s “Spooks”), and a well-established family. In class, he challenges his mixed-race students to consider all aspects of what drives terrorism, repeating an observation made by some U.S. presidents that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

That is enough in these edgy days to cause his university boss to warn Zaafir about going off curriculum, but he thinks that comes with the job and is nothing to worry about. He is quite wrong. Stopping on a North London street to help someone with directions, Zaafir is bundled into a car, given an injection in his neck and rushed to a private airport. A small jet takes him to an unknown destination where he is thrown in chains into a shipping container.

He hears voices speaking English but is questioned in French. Soon one man becomes his principal interrogator, a suave but relentless and highly intimidating Middle Eastern figure (Andy Serkis, Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings”). It’s obvious that Zaafir is suspected of being a terrorist, and he is subjected to an escalating series of psychological and physical torture. That includes insinuations about his wife, beatings with a cane, knives inserted into his knuckles, and water boarding in which he is made to believe he is drowning.

The film cuts back and forth to scenes before Zaafir’s kidnapping and to the aftermath, when he tries to pick up the shattered pieces of his life. The filmmakers have opted for ambiguity in the man’s background, however, when more information would certainly help. A lecturer in good standing at a major university would surely show his torture wounds to somebody even if it were a reporter from the News of the World.

Vague references to Washington, the CIA and British acquiescence suggest that victims of such treatment have no way to seek redress, but the film would benefit from a clearer demonstration of that. It remains a powerful piece of work, with a fine central performance by Berdouni and a memorably frightening one by Serkis that might change the way many people think of him.


Zaafir: Omar Berdouni

Interrogator: Andy Serkis

Eva: Ania Sowinksi

Screenwriter-director: Jim Threapleton; Producer: Andrew Noble; Executive producer: Stuart Wheeler; Director of photography: Duncan Telford; Production designer: Kristian Milsted; Costume designer: Alex Watherston; Music: James Edward Barker; Editor: Brian Hovmand.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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