Wednesday, September 13, 2023

‘NAGA’ TIFF Review – A Tense Thriller With a Terrifying Creature Feature Set Piece

Writer/director Meshal Aljaser’s NAGA opens with a moment of shocking violence: in 1970, a man with a gun moves through the halls of a hospital, searching for his pregnant wife. When he finds her, he murders her and the male doctor, incensed that his baby boy wasn’t delivered by a female doctor as he prescribed.

The incident hangs heavy over the entire film – in part because of the random nature of the violence, but more specifically because it is so gendered. Saudi Arabia is a deeply patriarchal society where the rules of men are paramount and the penalties for women who “misbehave” are severe.

This is certainly the experience of Sara (Adwa Bader), the daughter of an affluent and intimidatingly strict man (Khalid Bin Shaddad). In the present day, Sara is gently rebelling however she can: she smokes (discreetly) and she has a secret boyfriend, Saad (Yazeed Almajyul). It’s classic repressed child behaviour.

NAGA takes place over the course of a single day, which happens to be when Sara sneaks off with Saad to attend a lavish party. She meets her boyfriend in the market at 1pm after ditching her female shopping chaperone with plans to be back by her designated 9:55 curfew. So long as Sara is there when her father arrives to pick her up, everything will be fine.

Naturally, things don’t go according to plan.

Despite having nearly nine hours to do drugs, drive into the desert, and attend the party, things go wrong almost immediately. The beauty of the day is soured by an aggressive driver on the highway who ominously flashes a gun, then Saad’s contact takes forever to provide the address of the party. By the time the pair have watched a gang of young men break into an ice cream truck, it’s nearly dark and Sara is more than ready to call it a day and go back to the city.

Then they hit a camel.

Like all good films that employ a series of snowballing catastrophes over the course of a single day, NAGA finds new and exciting ways of delaying Sara’s progress. These roadblocks include a chance encounter with her father’s favourite famous poet (hilarious), a police chase through the desert (exciting), and a brutal and sustained attack by a rabid camel (absolutely horrifying).

A clock appears sporadically on screen, ominously counting down the hours that Sara is actively running out of. This narrative device becomes even more important when Aljaser briefly shifts the narrative into non-linear territory by revealing that Sara has been locked in the trunk of the car. The film then jumps back in time to fill in the missing hours and explain how she ended up there.

Aljaser ramps up the tension with more than just a countdown timer, however: he and cinematographer Ibraheem Alshangeeti are prone to frenetic camerawork that makes key set pieces a dizzying blur. Take the opening sequence: it’s shot using a handheld camera to mimic the shooter’s point of view as the man careens wildly down a hospital stairwell. These visuals are so incredibly disorienting that they nearly inspire motion sickness, but the effect is incredibly persuasive because it literally puts the audience in the middle of the action.

Between the virtuoso camerawork and the ticking clock, NAGA‘s closest spiritual comparison is the adrenaline rush of Run Lola Run.

This is never truer than in the film’s stand-out set piece: the camel attack in the desert. The sequence is broken in two due to the non-linear time shift, so it’s saying something that it is incredibly effective both times – in part because the camel is very large and Sara has no weapons, but also because Aljaser and Alshangeeti use the same shaky cam, POV shots, and wild editing approach to put the audience in the middle of the fight. It’s bold, terrifying, and really, really good.

None of this would matter, however, if the audience didn’t care about Sara’s plight. NAGA’s other key asset is Bader, who imbues Sara with the perfect combination of entitlement, spirit, and rebellion. Not only does Sara refuse to suffer fools (ie: most men), she has a fiery temper and a vengeful streak for those who cross her. This makes for several volatile interactions in which Sara makes matters worse, but she’s an undeniably memorable character. You have to root for her, even when you want to scream at her to focus on getting home before it’s too late.

NAGA is an incredibly exciting, dynamic thriller featuring an assured performance from lead actress Bader. The film never shies away from addressing the challenges (young) women face in a systemically patriarchal society, but it’s not heavy-handed or preachy. It’s just impossible to forget what’s at stake: all of the gunplay, police violence and camel attacks pale in comparison to the danger Sara faces if she doesn’t arrive on time to meet her father.

She has to get there or there will be hell to pay. And it’s one hell of a ride.

It is still TBD when Netflix will release NAGA. The film had its World Premiere at TIFF 2023.

The post ‘NAGA’ TIFF Review – A Tense Thriller With a Terrifying Creature Feature Set Piece appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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