‘To a Land Unknown’ Review: Palestinian Filmmaker’s Narrative Debut Channels the Spirit of ‘Bicycle Thieves’

Danish-Palestinian director Mahdi Fleifel’s assured fiction debut opens in a typical town square in contemporary Athens. The square is leafy and shaded, with plentiful orange trees, but it’s not prettified or bourgeois. The people hanging out there are a mixture of tourists, locals and those of indeterminate status, including Chatila (Mahmood Bakri) and Reda (Aram Sabbah), a couple of young men seemingly watching the world go by on a nice day in the city. They observe a small boy jumping to snatch an orange from a tree, before setting their sights on an older woman relaxing on a bench. Chatila confirms her as their target and the pair set in motion a modest and well-rehearsed bag-snatching scam.

It’s the first of many attempts the pair will make to raise money. Chatila and Reda are Palestinians, stuck in Athens, hoping to reach Germany. The duo are cousins, and their dynamic has faint echoes of the displaced migrant workers Lenny and George in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” albeit Reda’s vulnerability is not his mental capacity, but his dependence on drugs, coupled with a naive side rendering him more likely to be exploited than seek to exploit. In contrast, Chatila is the brains of the outfit, formulating various escape plans frustrated by circumstances outside of his control. He must draw on tremendous reserves of determination shading into desperation as he attempts to secure his modest dream of opening a small cafe in Berlin, which will provide work and a home for Reda and the rest of Chatila’s family, currently stuck in a camp in Lebanon. Reda loves to hear about this cafe, asking repeatedly in a childlike way to hear the story of what it will be like again.

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Both actors are excellent, though it’s Mahmood Bakri who particularly distinguishes himself, capturing the fine differences between Chatila’s natural personality type and the notes he is forced to play by the situation in which he finds himself. The character is both active and responsive, required to take the initiative, cope with frustrations, compromise himself morally and essentially repress the more vulnerable sides of himself, but Bakri finds a way to convey a rounded sense of the young man’s softer side as well.

Reda is more overtly humane, quick to insist they should help the young boy seen snatching an orange in the opening scene when he is revealed to be a fellow Palestinian, living on the streets after being abandoned by the men who were supposed to be helping him reach his aunt in Italy. As with the street-hustle dynamic between Chaplin’s Little Tramp and Jackie Coogan’s titular character in “The Kid,” there’s a sense of equality between them despite their respective ages and of role reversal as the boy proves more effective than his older protector in bargaining over the price of stolen sneakers.

In these and other respects, “To a Land Unknown” is a film crafted with tremendous empathy. The screenplay, from Fyzal Boulifa, Mahdi Fleifel and Jason McColgan, avoids perpetuating the fallacy of the “deserving poor,” whereby an imagined class of morally unimpeachable people in tough circumstances are seen as acceptable recipients of aid, but only as long as they can prove their innocence, and sometimes not even then. It follows in the footsteps of the likes of Italian neorealist classic “Bicycle Thieves” in prioritizing the humanity of its leads, but in a sense it goes harder, testing the viewer’s ability to stay on Chatila and Reda’s side through an escalation in stakes as the script gradually ramps up the seriousness of the crimes they commit in their efforts to secure the normal lives for themselves that most viewers take for granted. The difficulty of hanging onto your humanity when you are not being treated humanely is a core concern, expressed here with appealing spirit and fire.

Working with DP Thodoros Mihopoulos, Fleifel sticks close to his characters throughout, a strategy that helps keep the audience connected to the specifics of their story, rather than being overwhelmed by statistics or numbed by the sense of impotence that a panoramic view of the injustices faced by the likes of Chatila and Reda might inspire. The visual grammar of the film is attuned to a facial expression pulled in private, an exchange of glances, to body language that reveals unspoken tensions. This is a confident, angry, fully-realized drama which should see its makers afforded further opportunities to craft similarly vital work.

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