To a Land Unknown (2024) Review

To a Land Unknown (2024)
Director: Mahdi Fleifel
Screenwriter: Fyzal Boulifa, Mahdi Fleifel, Jason McColgan
Starring: Angeliki Papoulia, Mahmood Bakri, Mohammad Ghassan

“How we are here today, I don’t get it,” said director Mahdi Fleifel at the world premiere of To a Land Unknown at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2024, where it competed in the Un Certain Regard strand. Just seven short months after beginning shooting in Greece, the cast and crew were attending this socially conscious film’s premiere at one of the most prestigious festivals in the world. As those who know anything about filmmaking would understand, the turnaround between production and the finished piece was extremely quick, which serves as testament to the urgency of such a movie.
To a Land Unknown is set in Athens, Greece, and follows two Palestinian refugees, Chatila (Mahmood Bakri) and his cousin Reda (Aram Sabbah), who live on the fringes of society. They dream of reaching Germany and opening a restaurant with Chatila’s wife who has stayed behind in Lebanon with Chatila’s son, but their dream seems almost impossible to achieve as they face the high costs of their journey to Europe, as imposed by the smugglers who got them in via illegal routes. Upon meeting a child who is also a Palestinian refugee, Chatila and Reda attempt to help him reach his aunt in Italy, but are willing to do anything to make their own dream come true.

The acting in To a Land Unknown is particularly noteworthy for how impactful it is. As the film goes on, we get to know Chatila and Reda on a deep level, and their humanity shines from the very first moment, reminding us that Chatila and Reda’s narrative stands in for similar heartbreaking stories about real-life refugees. By the time the film ends, it is almost impossible not to root for them, to hope that they will succeed even against almost impossible odds. The actors are exceptional at depicting the screenplay’s beautiful depiction of family bonds that, while complex and tumultuous at times, are the strongest (and perhaps only) foundation that these characters can rely upon. To a Land Unknown takes a character-first approach, empathetically presenting its thematic intention. In this way, Fleifel’s latest movie echoes Capernaum (2018) by Nadine Labaki, which was similarly headlined by a strong acting performance.

As was the case in Capernaum, the refugee child in To a Land Unknown is one of the most interesting characters. He is alone in a foreign city but manages to find unlikely allies in the other Palestinians who live in Athens and look out for each other in the face of great adversity and abuse. The themes are obviously in-keeping with Labaki’s film, but it also shares similarities on a narrative level, taking us on a journey that will force us to question our own moral standings and ideas of right and wrong in the face of overwhelming challenges. Each film is reminiscent of the cinema of Italian Neorealism – while the movie is not set nor filmed in post-war Italy and uses professional actors, the movement’s realism and documentary-like aesthetic are vital to To a Land Unknown and make its story all the more heartbreaking and emotional.

Vitally, To a Land Unknown avoids harmful stereotyping, opting to create rounded characters facing seemingly insurmountable challenges as opposed to simple heroes or (as has more often been the case in western cinema) villains. Here, there is a realistic balance of characteristics that the actors, and the film’s wider narrative, explore. This should be received as imperative given the current political situation in Palestine, and the vilifying of the people involved. To a Land Unknown actively avoids harmful stereotypes, ensuring its timely significance.

Some scenes in To a Land Unknown will prove to be uncomfortable to some viewers, but each is incredibly necessary to remain true to the film’s sombre realism and its timely message. This is a film that does not exist to make us comfortable, it exists to shed light on some very important humanitarian issues. The appalling treatment of refugees in Europe has been apparent for long enough, and this feature goes a long way to illuminating that on a personal, human level. It is also a powerful reminder of the very real struggles Palestinians go through every day.

Overall, To a Land Unknown is a beautifully heartbreaking film with a very urgent and necessary message. The story of Chatila and Reda may be fictional, but all of its elements may very well have happened, and that is this film’s power.

Score: 20/24

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Clotilde Chinnici
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