05 February, 2014

AJFF Review: "God's Slave" (****½)

Mohammed Al-Khaldi stars as Ahmed Al Hassama in "God's Slave"

The only problem with “God’s Slave” (released as “Esclavo de Dios”) was not the film’s mistake. It was mine. I thought I’d seen it all before. A young Muslim’s hatred is sharpened by the tragedy he suffered as a child. The Israeli official’s anti-terrorism efforts stem from an attack he witnessed decades earlier. Each man, driven by vengeance and a devotion to the God he worships, embarks on a mission to end what the other stands for. There’s a good guy, a bad guy, a climactic take down, and a happy ending.

Except it’s not that simple. Director Joel Novoa, who more recently directed “Machsom,” an audience favorite on the 2013 festival circuit, is a master storyteller. He transforms a seemingly open-and-shut political thriller into a moving and nuanced portrayal of commitment and crusade. Ahmed Al Hassama (Mohammed Al-Khaldi) agrees to lay dormant, masquerading for years as a Venezuelan native until his terrorist unit has unveiled his assignment—a series of suicide bombings that he and his brethren regard as a spiritual honor. David Goldberg (Vando Villamil), a Mossad intelligence agent stationed in Buenos Aires, has a relentless aptitude for terrorists’ careers and threats. His quest to thwart the impending attacks leads him to Ahmed, whose internal battle between allegiances to God and family requires he weigh his decision.

Vando Villamil stars as David Goldberg in "God's Slave"
The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, now in its fourteenth year, held the East Coast Premiere of “God’s Slave” on Monday night. An introduction by guest speaker Rabbi Dr. Analia Bortz, who moved from Argentina with her husband to Atlanta in 2000, prefaced the film with face-to-face context and mourning. “In 1994, they attacked [Argentina] again,” Bortz recalled. “I lost many friends. Many friends.” She went on to say that she couldn’t ask the audience to enjoy the film, but to be moved by it instead.

Based on the true events Rabbi Bortz described, “God’s Slave” accepts an even bigger challenge than to create a poignant film. Novoa’s work has a responsibility to the victims and survivors of religious extremist acts around the world. It’s this shouldered reverence that isolates each scene as the moment it represents. Every action, every line, every glance alludes to a past that threatens to repeat itself. Novoa’s awareness of such significance cast his result in an affecting light that eclipsed the setting in which I absorbed it; I was no longer a festival attendee, but both a terrorist and a victim, as unsure of whose crusade to champion as I was surprised by my conflicting loyalty.

Windows into Ahmed’s and David’s families balance tense chase scenes and moments of truth. The dynamic screenplay by Fernando Butazzoni makes way for more than suspense, imploring the viewer not only acknowledge the grey areas, but immerse themselves within. Impassioned performances dance with a flawless score. Shot on location in Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, and the United States, “God’s Slave” is an absorbing accomplishment.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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