The mysterious narrator at the opening of The Alleys (2021) warns us that stories spread like wildfire, and “every son of a bitch has his way with it, so by the time it reaches your ears, they’ve spun a web of it.” He tells us to “believe half of what you hear and two-thirds of what you see.”
Jordanian director Bassel Ghandour’s thriller opens with music that recalls the paranoid tone of spy thrillers, complementing the air of suspicion the narrator stirs. From the opening scene, The Alleys creates an uneasy tension about how what is seen or overheard in this tight-knit community of tight alleyways and streets could decide the fate of its characters.
Ali (Emad Azmi) and Lana (Baraka Rahmani) secretly guard their love affair. When her mother Aseel (Nadira Omran) is sent a compromising video by a blackmailer, she protects her daughter’s honour by seeking the help of the local gangster Abbas (Monzer Reyahnah). It’s a decision that has unexpected consequences as their fates become tragically intertwined.
The narration and the story divided into five chapters infuses The Alleys with a literary presence. Self-aware, Ghandour’s film knows that it’s an act of storytelling that bleeds into the narrative. Abbas and Hanadi (Maisa Abd Elhadi) his feared right-hand woman, are both acutely aware of the power and danger that lies in whether they’re perceived as strong or weak. Thus, the story is entrenched in the themes of control and its consequences.
Another idea spiralling out of control is the difficulty of living in a society that has strict expectations of its citizens. This is not only about what Ali and Lana want, but also the opinions and prejudices of others. When Aseel learns that her daughter has acted dishonorably by inviting Ali into her bedroom, she’s driven to act to protect Lana. Her actions become a critique of societal structures that use guilt and shame to control through conformity. It draws a focus back to what’s seen and heard, which has nothing to do with truth, compassion, or understanding. It’s about placating societal structures and traditions at the expense of the individual, while Abbas and Hanadi use illegal methods to empower themselves at the expense of the many.
The Alleys has an unmistakable sense of fate about it. Ghandour uses this sensibility to create an entertaining thriller empowered by its themes and ideas. Similar to how negative emotions such as anger and hate that can be energising, the story patiently waits and begins to explore how these feelings betray us.
What begins to unfold is claustrophobic chaos and fallout from the limited choices the characters have. With a few deft twists, we’re left exasperated at the series of events that unfolds, especially for someone such as Abbas, who values his pride more than his body. Both he and Aseel are victims of pride, but each offers a nuanced perspective. For one it’s a way of a life chosen, for the other, they’re a victim of repressive and patriarchal tradition.
Cinema is a moral playground that offers cathartic experience by allowing us to safely escalate our anti-social and violently intrusive thoughts vicariously. Abbas’ presence cannot be disputed, but Hanadi is one of those special characters, who, in spite of her intimidating presence, is sparingly featured and yet impossible to forget. Abbas and Hanadi seduce us, yet we sympathise with Ali and Lana. Ghandour nurtures conflicting emotions and gives our sociable and antisocial natures competing characters with whom we can identify.
The gangster has always been a seductive figure. Martin Scorsese’s body of work in the crime genre has exploited this appeal, like so many of his peers, including foreign filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Melville’s stylish and cool criminals in his crime / gangster pictures. Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) explores how a teenager is seduced into a life of crime. Audience familiarity with that trope can become tired and worn, but Ghandour’s film breathes fresh life into these seductive characters through the simple change of the cultural setting.
Ghandour insert sparing beats of humour, those self-knowing winks that convey absurdity, but it doesn’t detract from the dark and gritty thriller elements. His approach to the well-worn genre confirms an emerging promising voice in world cinema.