14 June 2007


It's ideal to go into Julia Loktev's remarkable debut feature not knowing anything, but it's also damn near impossible to write about it without disclosing key information. (However, basic knowledge of the plot did not seriously lessen the film's impact for me, so SPOILERS AHEAD).

We follow a 19-year-old girl (Luisa Williams), her character only referred to as "She" in the credits. She seems to be on an important mission, training to do something. We watch her receive instructions to carry out, first via phone, then from mysterious figures whose faces are sheathed in black masks. Dropped off in a hotel, She obsessively bathes every crevice of her body and recites cryptic mantras to herself.

It (very) gradually comes into focus that She is a suicide bomber and her instructions are to self-detonate herself in a random crowd of people in congested Times Square. We never fully learn what organization She's doing this for, or even whether its affiliation is religious, political, or other. She also seems to deliberately be a blank slate, devoid of determinable ethnicity or accent. As She reaches her final destination, the film gains intensity and insight as both She and the audience come to terms with the complexity and consequences of what She has set out to do.

The film's methodical pace, muted expressiveness, abundance of close-ups and concern with one's own fate earn the Dreyer and Bresson comparisons it has received; the influence of Iranian cinema is also felt throughout, especially in the oblique and not entirely conclusive narrative. All of these ambiguities may frustrate many viewers, but Loktev has created an original, assured, involving, uncompromising film. It may have a bare-bones style, but there's so much going on here.

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