Omar Sy in Heavyhanded Refugee Drama

7 Min Read

The line between art and activism is blurred — often to a fault — in The Strangers’ Case, a visceral migrant drama that plays less as a movie with a message than as a message with a movie.

Written and directed by Brandt Andersen, an executive producer (American Made, Everest), former NBA G League franchise owner and international activist, the film follows several characters whose lives are upended by the Syrian Civil War, switching points of view as it moves from the grim battlegrounds of Aleppo to the gates of Europe.

The Strangers’ Case

The Bottom Line

Well-meaning but overwrought.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Cast: Yasmine Al Massri, Yahya Mahayni, Omar Sy, Ziad Barki, Constantine Markoulakis, Ayman Samman, Massa Daoud
Director, screenwriter: Brandt Andersen

1 hour 37 minutes

It can be an intense experience to sit through, and Andersen doesn’t hold back on the gruesome violence and nonstop tragedy many migrants suffered during the conflict — and continue to suffer to this day. But that doesn’t always make for great drama, nor for characters who go deep enough, resulting in a well-meaning film that feels half like a globetrotting Hollywood thriller, half like a long commercial for the UN Refugee Agency.

Of the many storylines in The Strangers’ Case — whose title is taken from a passionate speech, in defense of refugees, that Shakespeare wrote for the play Sir Thomas More — the principal one is that of the doctor Amira (Yasmine Al Massri). We first see her working at a hospital in Chicago, then flashback eight years earlier to Aleppo, where she’s operating on wounded soldiers as the city is relentlessly assaulted by Assad’s army. Trying to stay alive with her 12-year-old daughter, Rasha (Massa Daoud), in tow, Amira loses the rest of her family when her parents’ building is bombed, miraculously surviving and fleeing for the border before it’s too late.

The rest of Amira’s journey is witnessed through people she meets en route to Europe, with Andersen’s script jumping back in time to focus on a new plotline, then bringing it forward to a cliffhanger before cutting away to yet another character. It’s a technique that creates some tension and mystery in an otherwise straightforward story torn from real-life drama. But it can also feel methodical and manipulative, as if it were a TV series condensed into a feature-length film that had to get the viewer hooked every fifteen minutes.

Of the many characters Amira and Rasha run into as they try to make it to safety, the most intriguing are a Syrian soldier named Mustafa (Yahya Mahayni), who finds himself torn between allegiances to Assad and his own burgeoning moral conscience; and the refugee smuggler Marwan (Omar Sy), who runs an operation between Turkey and Greece involving a treacherous boat ride across the Aegean Sea.

Known for his generous smile and hearty laugh, Sy is cast against type here as a ruthless profiteer making money off the backs of migrants who might not survive the voyage they pay him for. But like nearly everyone else in The Strangers’ Case, he’s shown to have a heart as well, caring for a young son who lies sick in bed back home as his father goes about his dirty business.

Andersen’s message, heard loud and clear and several times over — and amplified by a thundering score from Nick Chuba — is that children are often the victims of conflicts they have nothing to do with, while their parents are left traumatized, picking up the pieces of their wrecked lives. This is Amira’s story, but it’s also Mustafa’s and Marwan’s. And it’s also that of Fathi (Ziad Bakri), whom they run into in a Turkish refugee camp; and Stavros (Constantine Markoulakis), a Greek coast guard captain who neglects his own family to save as many migrants as possible.

Toward the end of the film, one of Stavros’ shipmates claims that in their single boat, they’ve rescued over 11,000 people in the past months alone, while more than 1,000 have perished at sea. The figure is startling and no doubt true, as are other shocking things in The Strangers’ Case, such as a scene in which we see a young boy mercilessly executed by one of Assad’s henchmen. Such hard facts don’t, however, always make for powerful storytelling, and compared to a morally complex and emotionally jarring film like Agnieszka Holland’s recent Green Border, which tackled a similar subject from multiple viewpoints as well, Andersen’s movie feels far too cursory and sentimental.

It’s nonetheless impressively assembled, beginning with a recreation of war-torn Aleppo that plunges the viewer into the heart of an apocalyptic conflict, and ending with a disastrous ride on an inflatable raft where many of the main characters risk their lives. Production designer Julie Berghoff (Army of the Dead) deserves credit for making each location feel as real as possible, while cinematographer Jonathan Sela (Bullet Train) uses lots of crafty handheld camerawork to keep us glued to the action. It’s a Hollywood-level package for what’s ultimately too much of a downer to feel like a Hollywood movie, though it does succeed in highlighting the victims of a crisis we should all be concerned about.

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