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Cannes 2024: We saw a thrilling (and terrifying) spy thriller

The ghostsgripping thriller and a terrible true story

After the opening ceremony hosted by Camille Cottin, during which the actress Meryl Streep was awarded the honorary Palme d’Or and which concluded with the screening of the comedy The second act by Quentin Dupieux, the 77th Cannes Film Festival opened its Critics’ Week on May 15 with the spy thriller The ghosts.

Its director is Jonathan Millet, who previously distinguished himself with several documentaries including Ceuta, sweet prison and numerous short films. The ghosts it is his first fiction feature film. This is inspired by real facts, and by a barbarism already documented but whose belonging to an immediate and silent past means that recognition of him is still surrounded by a form of “fog of war”.

The ghosts takes us, immediately after the end of the recent Syrian civil war, on the hunt for a Syrian war criminal, torturer in the terrible Saidnaya prison. In this prison, often described as an “extermination camp”, thousands of opponents of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime lost their lives, under torture or serially executed by hanging. According to Amnesty International, around 30,000 prisoners died there between 2011 and 2018.

A paranoid and disturbing thriller

On this terrible reality, which Jonathan Millet leaves completely out of the picture and never suggests except through the rare words of the characters, The ghosts offers an anti-spectacular but perfectly compelling spy thriller about a man, Hamid, grieving, tortured at Saidnaya, and following his tormentor across Europe, in hiding. Since Hamid has never seen this individual, named Harfaz, having been systematically blindfolded or had his head covered during interrogations and torture sessions, it is through his other senses that he must follow the trail. The smells, and hearing in particular, with Hamid listening to the testimonies and stories of other prisoners through headphones.

With great economy of means – like its characters – the film The ghosts manages to create a terrible external tension, impalpable and invisible, but present. We understand that Hamid, under a false identity, and his fellow hunters are themselves threatened by Syrian power. Without having visual knowledge of his “target”, Hamid must therefore approach it with caution, paranoia and even uncertainty. Between Munich, Strasbourg, Paris, are you on the right path?

Another great performance from Adam Bessa…

Adam Bessa is a star. If the general public doesn’t know him yet, or only as a supporting character in films Tyler Rake, the future in which he will be recognized as one of the main actors of world cinema is very close. Indeed, both on screen and off, he has this inexplicable aura, this mystery that Léa Seydoux also has, this full presence that at the same time suggests an absence, an escape, through everything that this presence offers. Moreover. I mean, it’s not clear, words fail, it’s indescribable, and that’s why he’s a movie star.

Entirely structured around his point of view, Jonathan Millet’s camera films Adam Bessa at all distances, with all angles and with the actor’s almost “signature” shot, medium shot of the upper body in profile , face divided between shadow and light, look of evasion. What, among other things, unites the films in which he plays the main role is this love that all the shots and lights seem to have for him. Like he already did for his character in Harka, Adam Bessa doesn’t let Hamid talk much. Everything is internal, in the tensions and movements of the gaze and jaw, everything is in his approach, that of a “ghost”, evanescent and damaged, elusive because frail and elusive.

The ghosts, whose economy of words and the wandering effect given to Hamid’s journey sometimes cause downtime, culminates in a long and exceptional scene, a memorable confrontation between Hamid and Harfaz. While Hamid, against the advice of the other members of his cell, approaches the surveillance and follows Harfaz into a canteen. The latter, recognizing a fellow Syrian and without suspecting that Hamid is persecuting him, invites him to his table. Each hiding their own secret, the executioner and the victim then “get to know each other”.

…and Tawfeek Barhom

To face Hamid/Adam Bessa another top actor was needed. And, noticed inside The Cairo ConspiracyPalestinian actor Tawfeek Barhom gives a performance in his role as Harfaz that is as brief – he is the hunted character and distant silhouette of the film – as it is phenomenal in instilling a dull terror.

Harfaz (Tawfeek Barhom) - The ghosts
Harfaz (Tawfeek Barhom) – The Ghosts ©Memento Distribution

We are worth our words when we write that this comparison maintains, although in a completely different genre, a tension and cinematic power comparable to those of Heat. In fact, in this type of dialogue sequences, the direction often has little room for maneuver, with an inevitable shot/reverse shot, so it is essentially up to the actors to do the work. Face to face, the two young actors manage, with and despite inauthentic words, to translate with a power as terrifying as the subject, the immense tension of the present situation and the infinite horror of their shared past.

These exciting points of the particular drama unfolding on screen are paired with more universal questions, which run through everything. The ghosts. Who are we when we are underground? How is justice done when no institution is responsible for it, when this justice would be rendered “illegally”? How can you avoid becoming an executioner yourself?

A sublime realistic thriller

In his intentions, The ghosts can also remember The Office of Legends That Monk AND Secret conversation. But also mention Mosul AND Harkabecause Adam Bessa appropriates it and once again brings with him a silent and ignored history of the Arab world, giving existence back to individuals, and their struggles, which are invisible, which are “ghosts”.

Jonathan Millet tells a true story of these ghosts in a spy thriller, with almost documentary-like realism and veracity. With this character and his path entrusted to him by the director, Adam Bessa brings to this story a formidable and superior cinematic force, and the sublime, mixing in the same performance great cinematic sensations and a political invitation, a profoundly and concretely human direction to face a situation immense recent tragedy.

Source: Cine Serie

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