Burdened with a preponderance of surrealist imagery, Jessica Habie’s Mars at Sunrise merely concerns a painter, but it feels as if it were made by one.
Using its narrative as a launching pad for abstract visuals, the picture reminds viewers that even the most striking images demand context to create anything like drama.
Our painter is Khaled (Ali Suliman), a Palestinian who recounts his story in flashback to a young woman (Haale Gafori) at a Gaza checkpoint. Displaced from his home, Khaled wound up in Ramallah, where he was arrested and imprisoned — and tormented by Eyal (Guy Elhanan), an Israeli soldier who tortures and berates him for much of the film’s duration.
Mars at Sunrise‘s main conceit is that Khaled’s torment is not portrayed with drab realism but rather through his artistic perspective: Prison hallways turn into gardens; hallucinated girls vandalize bombs; reality is left behind. Though potentially intriguing, the strategy undermines the film’s stakes.
As the story enters an anything-goes dreamscape devoid of comprehensible narrative events, identifying with Khaled’s plight or understanding his emotions becomes increasingly difficult.
abie has a visual sense — one touching sequence early on has Khaled displaying Israeli and Palestinian passports, identical save for their different colors, to his art students as he explains the world of difference between the two — but this endeavor feels less like a film and more like a gallery installation.