Does Punishment Make Us Better People?: Mars at Sunrise

01/29/2014 4:00 AM |

Mars at Sunrise
Directed by Jessica Habie

This film centers on the relationship between Palestinian painter Khaled (Ali Suliman) and his Israeli captor Eyal (Guy Elhanan), commingling in the center both men’s tortured internalization of their interplay. As Khaled suffers in solitary confinement, his self-image as an Arab becomes purer and more poetic, while Eyal falters in subsequent military life due to a kind of slow-creeping PTSD. Habie doesn’t skimp on cinema: every flashback, hallucination, chance encounter and retelling of a family story is drawn in vivid cutaway colors, buttressed by solid performances and measured camerawork. But her conceptual overindulgence drains the film of mystery early and often, somehow reducing the entirety of the struggle to a kind of Israeli-Palestinian yin-yang.

In individual scenes, it’s easy to see the film thatMars at Sunrise could’ve been: both actors bring spontaneity to their totemic roles of oppressor and oppressed, especially Suliman. In a single-take-long scene in which Khaled exasperatedly discusses the difference between a blue and green passport to a classroom full of children, not a hair is out of place—except in the screenplay. Habie’s camera doesn’t flinch at violence, but by folding the brutality of occupation life into Eyal’s burbling memory-potpourri she turns harrowing moments into cheap psychological signposts. Late in the film he dodders through a dusty hallway with brash indie guitar wailing around him; each room houses its own traumatic tableau, peaking in the image of a sweet-faced little girl brandishing a suicide bomb in slow motion.

From this capricious murk, a (probably unintended) ideology emerges along the following lines: being beaten, tortured, interrogated and locked up makes Khaled a better artist, and Israel’s offensives into Jerusalem and Ramallah make Eyal a rightly tortured persecutor and thus, ultimately, a more compassionate soldier. Despite the riches of aesthetic trickery undertaken by Habie and her crew, this emphasis on punishment makes for an uncanny blind spot. Mars at Sunrise oscillates between honeyed speechmaking (including a ruinous voiceover bookending device) and schizophrenic, Fellini-esque hopscotching; it’s either a lecture or an
endless montage. 

Opens February 7