Bella. (Mexico)

Starring Omar Metwally, Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon. Directed by Gavin Hood. 122mins.
Running Time:
Rated: Rated MA 15+ (strong torture, string violence).

This is an impressive and alarming film.

Rendition is an odd word, a kind of literary term which obfuscates the reality it is meant to name. During the Clinton years, rendition and extraordinary rendition was a term devised to describe the 'unofficial' and undocumented transferring of individuals suspected to terrorism to overseas countries for 'interrogation' - since the US does not deal in torture. That is the theory. And why use the word 'rendition' and what does it actually mean as a word let alone a name for what seems reprehensible behaviour?

Since September 2001, rendition has been practised more extensively for any suspicious, possible terrorist and stories have been circulated in recent years (along with information about treatment of internees at Guantanomo Bay) about the torture in questioning of these suspects. Some European countries have been named as receiving prisoners in rendition. Airports (including in Scotland) have been identified as places for refuelling rendition aircraft.

A full documentary on rendition would prove frightening.

However, Rendition is a feature film from Hollywood, made for the widest possible audience, a drama that proposes many strands of a story and brings them together at the end of two hours. Since we respond so well to stories, this kind of drama of rendition is a way to inform as well as emotionally stir the worldwide audience.

The film has been well written by Kelley Sane (although the end reveals that there have been different timeframes throughout which makes for some confusion, although it adds to the motivation of the character who is in charge of interrogation and torture). It has also been well directed by Gavin Hood who made the 2006 Oscar-winner, Tsotsi - and offers his South African signature by opening this film in Cape Town with fine views of Table Mountain). Hood, as an outsider, can be a touch more dispassionate in his story-telling than Americans. And, while all the strands come together at the end, he finishes his film without any intrusive, sentimental or spelling-it-all-out close-ups on the final knots and bows.

These strands include the abduction and rendition of an Egyptian-born American from Washington airport (and his name simply deleted from the computer passenger list). He is taken to an unnamed North African country where a suicide bomber has made an attempt on the life of the chief interrogator. Moroccan locations stand in for the anonymous country. This man's daughter has unwittingly taken up with a member of a local fanatical jihad group. In the meantime, his pregnant wife has been searching and lobbying a senator's assistant in Washington. A junior analyst has escaped being killed in the bomb blast and has to take the place of the hands-on member of the American staff and witness the questioning and torture.

There is no lack of plot.

While the film moves with both action and discussion, its cast is a major strength. Omar Metwally is sympathetic as the captive - and we are not spared his torture and his anguish, nor his answers invented to stop the torment. Jake Gylenhaal is the young official facing his 'first torture', whose sensibilities and conscience are challenged by what he sees. Reese Witherspoon is the captive's wife, Peter Sarsgaard the senate assistant and Alan Arkin the senator.

What makes the scenario all the more frightening is that the person who coldly authorises the rendition with minimum evidence, who uses the war on terror as a cold principle to work on and cuts herself off from any feelings, and has no trouble in public denials of what is happening, is that this character is played by Meryl Streep.

Rendition, its human rights issues, the political implications and the moral questions, should be firmly on the public agenda.

Out February 10

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting

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