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April 18, 2014

Esclavo de Dios: Story inspired by AMIA bombing carries lofty message of reconciliation

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Cold-blooded political thriller needs more heat

By Pablo Suarez

Venezuelan filmmaker Joel Novoa Schneider’s debut film Esclavo de Dios (God’s Slave) is a fictional account based on a most painful event that took place in Buenos Aires on July 18 1994: the AMIA bombing (Argentine Israelite Mutual Association), which killed 85 people and injured hundreds. Within the mould of a police thriller, Novoa Schneider’s opus tells the story of Ahmed Al Hassama (Mohammed Al Khaldi), an Islamic fundamentalist waiting for the right time to carry out his mission, meaning to serve Allah in whatever terrorist attack he’s called to take part in. On the other side, there’s David Goldberg (Vando Villamil), a cold-blooded resourceful Mossad agent in Buenos Aires. Despite belonging to a legitimate agency, David shares a common trait with Ahmed: he’s also an extremist and stops at nothing to get what he wants. So, you could say that Esclavo de Dios is mainly about these two men and what they represent as their paths cross while being on opposite sides of the conflict.  
It’s easy to see that this premise can give way to a fairly decent mainstream thriller, if not a truly good one with an incisive political edge. But for that it is necessary to have three things Esclavo de Dios lacks: well sustained tension and suspense, deftly executed action sequences, and somewhat fleshed out characters.
This is not to say that Novoa Schneider’s debut film is a disaster, because it is not. In fact, it starts out with an appealing set up of the scenario and it leads you to think the best is yet to come. It’s a tidily shot feature anchored in a slightly seductive camerawork, effective sound design, and more than proper cinematography. It’s also tightly edited. In terms of technique, there’s no real need to worry.
Yet what matters the most is missing from the picture. Tension is a must in this type of films, and there’s none here. For instance, take the sequences involving the bombing, or those where the agents track down the perpetrators as they try to avoid another bombing. Incidentally, the bombing itself is represented off-screen, which is a wise decision. But it’s so poorly done that you’d think you’re witnessing the consequences of a car wreck instead of the aftermath of a tragedy. It’s clear the film is not about the bombing, but if the filmmaker opts to include it (be it off-screen or not), then the depiction has to be compelling. You can’t expect viewers to be on the edge of their seats watching a suspense-less thriller or one devoid of impact.
Then there are the characters, too underwritten even if they don’t come across as complete stereotypes. Granted, they perform the actions the script provides them with, and they do so correctly. They look pretty much implicated into what their characters do, but this is mostly due to the actors’ expertise — but actors can only do so much. Or take Ahmed’s wife and child, the reasons for Ahmed’s change of mind towards the end, and yet they almost utter no words throughout the film and have no personality whatsoever. Call it lax screenwriting and you’ll be dead right.
As for the action sequences, they are just clumsy and hence awkward looking. There’s a chase through rooftops early in the film that, to a certain extent, pays off. So I expected to see more of that, perhaps more gripping ones too. Fat chance. I think the worst one is the shootout right before the ending. Which goes hand in hand with the dramatic and ideological nature of the ending itself, as naive and unbelievable as it gets. I mean, a racist doesn’t turn into a humanist overnight and fundamentalists don’t become moderate fellows just because they’ve realized they’ve caused too much pain and may cause so much more. In a sense, it reminded me of the hopeful but little credible ending of The Other Son, a recently released feature that deals with the Arab-Israel conflict in a similarly simplistic manner.
Esclavo de Dios is unbiased, condemns violence and cries out for reconciliation. A great thing to do, no doubt. But it does it in a contrived manner since it leaves out all the complexities and all contradictory subjectivities of the protagonists — and what they represent, of course. In the end, it only amounts to an awfully flawed attempt in genre cinema — despite its lofty ambitions.   
@PablSuarez
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