Wednesday, 7 May 2014

GOD'S SLAVE (aka Esclavo de Dios) - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TJFF 2014 - Toronto Jewish Film Festival 2014

Vando Villamil is David, a Mossad agent fighting terrorism in Argentina

GOD'S SLAVE - Esclavo de Dios
Who is the slave?
GOD'S SLAVE (2013) ***1/2
Dir. Joel Novoa, Script: Fernando Butazzoni
Starring: Mohammed Al-Khaldi, Vando Villamil

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Some of the best cat and mouse thrillers that feature two characters on opposite sides of the equation will often present a surface duality, but as the picture progresses, the filmmakers will provide a number of analogous aspects twixt both parties which almost always, if not too obviously splashed on, add the kind of shading and moral complexity that allows the work to rise above the tropes of the genre. God's Slave, tersely directed by Joel Novoa from a finely wrought screenplay by Fernando Butazzoni is just such a film and as such, presents a tale that is as suspenseful as it is rooted within a deep humanity and understanding of the kind of conflicts ripping the world apart. What puts the film on an even loftier pedestal of quality are the shadings within each of the main characters that provide inner conflicts that betray their respective personal struggles with the dualities that nag at both of them.

Ahmed (Mohammed Al-Khaldi), a devout Muslim in Venezuala lives a seemingly charmed life as a successful doctor with a loving family. Alas, he is burdened with the haunting memory of his principled father (often accused of being a pro-Israeli Muslim) assassinated before his eyes by a masked Israeli agent. Ahmed's path, then, is clear. Willingly selected as a sleeper terrorist, he bides his time and waits for the moment when he'll be called by Allah to commit a suicide terrorist action. David (Vando Villamil) is a top Mossad agent in Argentina who lays, as if in wait, to either clean up and/or prevent terrorist acts. He is a devout Jew, similarly haunted by violent actions in his past and though he also has a family that loves him, he is so obsessed with his calling to fight terrorism that he's growing further and further away from those who care for him them most. These two men are dominated by past tragedies in their lives and are both on missions to destroy. The movie places both on an inevitable collision course, allowing us to get to know and respect both men. This, if anything, is what generates some of the nail-biting suspense, placing us on the edge of our seats, hoping and praying they'll find some way of reconciling that which haunts them and in so doing, avoid the inevitable confrontation that could mean death for both of them and possibly many others.

Mohammed Al-Khaledi is Ahmed,
a devout Muslim on a deadly mission.
This is one excruciating journey we take with both men and all the more so, as sides and motivations become blurred by their respective obsessions. I love the fact that the filmmakers have chosen to keep the title in a singular form. One of the wonderful aspects of the storytelling is that both men are, to varying degrees, slaves of God. This places equal weight and emphasis on both characters which better allows us to experience their similarities and differences. Finally, though, we get to fully appreciate how one man allows his devotion to God get in the way of what really allows him to be one with God, while the other is so entrenched in God's slavery that he's unable to ascertain the difference between God's Word and man's.

Inspired by true events, director Novoa brings a rich, effective mise-en-scène to the table, utilizing a perfect blend of classical compositions and movement with the harried, documentary-like immediacy of hand-held perspectives. The latter, however, if always expertly achieved and feels like it's been planned down to its last detail, avoiding the sloppy herky-jerky of those directors who are ultimately masking their directorial incompetence (Christopher Nolan, J.J. Abrams, Same Mendes, to name a few), but also creating his own sense of floating-like handheld movement as opposed to aping the riveting, expertly-fashioned Paul Greengrass/Kathryn Bigelow styles. Novoa uses both approaches, the classical and the documentary to bring a sense of intimacy that allows for the visceral suspense to blend perfectly with writer Buttazoni's intelligent, delicately wrought screenplay.

God's Slave is so compulsively gripping and well made, that I was the tiniest bit disappointed with its denouement which seems far too pat, too resolute, if you will. While everything up to the slam-bang climax ticks like clockwork, the story has an added beat that might have been so much better if left more ambiguous which, frankly, would seem to have flowed more honestly with the movie as a whole. As it stands, the final beat almost feels like the kind of thing an American Hollywood remake would bring to bear upon the material and coming close to negating the power and intent of all that's preceded it. My brief dissatisfaction here, is not the end of the world for this fine picture, just the kind of annoyance that often trips up that which is not only skilfully directed, edited and acted, but otherwise presents a fresh take on familiar material.

God's Slave is playing at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival 2014. For tickets, visit the TJFF website HERE.