September 13th, 2023
STARRING: ABOUBAKR BENSAIHI, LUBNA AZABAL, AMIR EL ARBI
DIRECTED BY: ADIL EL ARBI, BILALL FALLAH
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 ½ STARS (Out of 4)
By the time 2023 comes to an end it is going to be directors Adil & Bilall’s newest film Rebel that surprised me the most. The directors of Bad Boys for Life have had a whirlwind of a career, not caused by their own doing, as their production of Bat Girl was shelved by Warner Brothers after it was finished, and Will Smith’s “Slap Heard Round the World” put a pause on Bad Boys 4. All of those moments of devastation would certainly dent the pride of any artist, but it has led to their best film yet- Rebel. It’s based on a true story, about a man named Kamal (Aboubakr Bensaihi), who is a twenty-something hip-hop artist in Belgium. He goes to Syria to help those being bombed in Aleppo, but rescue efforts take a turn when he is kidnapped by members of Isis. It seems like a straight story of one man’s survival, but it turns into a sprawling display of interpretive dance, the way terrorists recruit, and the desperation of a family to save the ones they love from radicalization. Rebel is a powerful expression of an artist’s vision and a harrowing production of survival.
The narrative begins with a focus on Kamal and intercut shots of the rising views of his YouTube music videos. At first, it looks like what we are only watching is a music video but soon we see that this is an extension of who Kamal is. The other character is his mother Leila (Lubna Wasaki) and 12-year-old brother Nassim (Amir El Arbi). What happens after Kamal is kidnapped is that his first motive is to survive, doing what the ISIS leaders say, helping to threaten and kill those who follow Asad. A video is released of Kamal assassinating a man and back home there is only shock from his mother and brother. The narrative soon turns to Nassim and how the release of this video makes him a target for a local gangster in the neighborhood to brainwash him. “Your brother is fighting the good fight” and “You should be proud”. Nassim starts to believe it. His belief is that his brother could only be doing good and now Leila fears she will lose both children to the evil terrorist group.
It would be easy to say that a movie like Rebel is bleak- and it is. But what can’t be dismissed is how superb the production is. Adil & Bilall make everything look authentic, from sequences where bombs are hitting a hospital that Kamal is helping at, from a chase sequence where Kamal attempts to escape, or the intertwined dance sequences. It is those dance sequences that truly show their strength. The directors find a way to genuinely get the audience captivated by interpretive dance, something that can be an acquired taste but has become a great addition to films such as Rebel and the recent production of Carmen. It’s an element that can put the viewer into the mind, without a cliched use of flashbacks, or special effects tricks. It’s a part of the film that truly won me over.
If the first half is about Kamal’s experience of going from man of the people to prisoner of war, the second half of Rebel turns into Nassim’s fall, as he is taken to an Isis training center, turned into a child soldier, and then his mother must find the strength to rescue him. The process of these events is a feeling of being paralyzed, how some can be influenced through manipulation, and those in authority can only offer responses of, “There’s nothing we can do”. This is where Rebel goes from survival and turns into a story of heroics.
Rebel will be a difficult watch for many, as it’s not uplifting or easy, but it is some of the best directing you will see in 2023. In the end, it leaves a message that Adil & Bilall are not just directors for big-budget superheroes or the continuation of an action series. They are better than that. Rebel is proof that the better stuff in cinema is telling deep, dark, and conflicting stories. There is much to applaud in Rebel. It may have been a surprise to me at first but now it is one of 2023’s greatest success stories. See it because these directors deserve it.
REBEL IS CURRENTLY PLAYING IN SELECT THEATERS.
3 ½ STARS
Written by: Leo Brady