Rebel (2023) Movie Review- Impassioned but blunt appeal against the dangers of rhetoric

Rebel (2023) Movie Reviw

In Rebel (2023), directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah ask us to invest our interests in one of the unlikeliest protagonists, occupying the other end of the popular ideological spectrum. Leila Wasaki (Lubna Azabal), a single mother, lives with her teenage son, Nassim (Amir El Arbi), in Brussels. One day, she finds herself at the center of scrutiny as the TV flashes an ISIS video from Syria, where her elder son, Kamal (Aboubakr Bensaihi), is seen executing one of Assad’s soldiers. The film proceeds to fold back into acquainting us with the lead-up to that filmed moment that throws Leila and Nassim’s lives into disarray, as they are met with deep suspicion and hostility by everyone around them.

While Leila can sense the public gaze toughening itself on her and her child, she keeps her armor thick. Nassim is disoriented and perturbed and struggles to grasp the implications while feeling the brunt of severe judgment by his classmates. He is distanced from his only friend as well. The film cuts back and forth between this Brussels plot track and the happenings in Syria, interweaving how Kamal got initially pulled into the fabric of the deadly militancy.

The screenplay dwells on the lure of propaganda, the trap it lays for unsuspecting youths who get dangerously and so inviolably sucked in that there’s little to no leeway to make it out safe and sane. How are people driven to such extreme instances? How are they rationalized into making such decisions? The film seeks to unspool an understanding of these thorny, complicated questions while trying to maintain a tricky balance of keeping the viewer’s empathy in check. This is risky terrain, and the directors, who have extensively researched the subject for years, take us to fathom the wide gulf between the first day on the militant camps and the crushing, ultimate realization of one’s acute misjudgment, with sensitivity and style.

Things are gruesome in the film, and there are sections in it that make for gut-wrenching viewing. It is designed to make us uncomfortable, the shocking scale of the violence that randomly erupts, the shelling, and the sense of utter, horrifying, outrageous unpredictability of a safe space constantly on the brink of demolition. The directors build a couple of staggering setpieces, blowing with genuine fear, uncertainty, and mayhem.

We are taken to precarious makeshift hospital emergency wards that house lethally wounded and physically disabled victims. Kamal’s partner, Noor (Tara Abboud), who is presented to him from a slave market, starts volunteering at one of the wards, once a doctor herself. The film charts the relationship between Kamal and Noor in all its tentative blossom of the two developing mutual trust and shared understanding of the other.

A still from Rebel (2023).
A still from Rebel (2023).

Noor is initially reluctant to let her guard down but slowly begins to perceive and appreciate Kamal’s inherent kindness and gentleness beneath the rough, rugged appearance. Kamal had joined as a videographer only to find things careening out of control, barely hiding his incomprehension of the rapidly unfurling unjustifiable aggression and a rigid ecosystem of intimidation all around him. When Noor questions his culpability in the organization and his entrenched role, he tells her he is trying to just survive. The scenes of their bonding are nicely etched, especially one where Kamal is teaching her to drive, which will have a devastating payoff later in the film.

Yet, we do not get much of a peek into Noor’s beliefs; largely, she comes off as a generic victim of double oppression, being cursorily doled out one of the musical set-pieces to articulate her grievances. So, while the film is earnest in depicting the blinding effects of corrosive propaganda, situating its damaging presence in the lives of both Kamal and Nassim, it does not aim to stretch its concerns for women who are as critical, if not more vulnerable, to the horrors that roll out and chew up anyone. This sore lack of much-needed perspective and a necessary angle limits the film.

Rebel (2023) leans on an innate sense of choreography, the narrative interspersed with rap numbers that allow the filmmakers to flex their talent for blocking and swift camera movement through shifting spaces with great eye-popping panache. The earliest of these stylized sequences that fuse heady lighting and blend bombing and a rave party to striking effect is among the best, delivering a pulsating anthem against oppression. While the rest of such sequences have meticulous blocking, they do not match the show-stopping energy and vigor of the very first, the loss of freshness compounded by the overwritten lyrics written in a manner of merely highlighting points.

The punctuating excess of songs also feels superfluous. As much as the focus seems to be put upon the insidious impact of recruiters to a misguided impression of the Islamic State and the slow-injecting of radicalization into children, the film’s real power emerges from the tremendous Azabal, who invests fire and spirit and throbbing emotion into the heightened stakes at play. The ever-reliable actress, who was the luminous center of last year’s incredible, poignant film, The Blue Caftan, anchors a terrifically, fiercely confrontational scene as her character raises pointed questions about the indifferent attitude to Arabs in Belgium.

But such a provocative spirit of inquiry is mostly absent from the film, which is both brave and yet unwilling to nudge further into the tense, feverishly senseless site of conflict and those who must be made responsible and held accountable for it. As the film wends into the second hour, there’s tedium as well as a final attempt to shock us, which does not quite land.

Read More: Viduthalai Part-I [2023] Review – Vetrimaaran’s Unflinching Look at the Politics of Oppression

Rebel (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
Rebel (2023) Movie Cast: Aboubakr Bensaihi, Lubna Azabal, Tara Abboud
Where to watch Rebel
Debanjan Dhar

A devotee of gore and the unsavory but is now drifting to the milder. Envious of anyone who gets the lowdown on recent films, and likes late-night street strolls only to get stalked by random strangers.