‘Ghost Trail’ Review: Revenge Is Served Cold In Jonathan Millet’s Icily Intelligent Syrian Drama – Cannes Film Festival (2024)

‘Ghost Trail’ Review: Revenge Is Served Cold In Jonathan Millet’s Icily Intelligent Syrian Drama – Cannes Film Festival (1)

The immediate cost of war is front and center these days, as the grim scenarios in Gaza and Ukraine continue to play out in front of us. But in his fiction debut, documentary filmmaker Jonathan Millet takes us beyond the headlines of the now to present the little-discussed realities that face those people displaced.

On the surface, it uses the traditional tropes of the spy movie — a secret intelligence network, cryptic codenames, clandestine meetings in public places — but Ghost Trail isn’t exactly thrilling, certainly not in the manner of a John le Carré novel. Closer in spirit to Spielberg’s Munich, it’s a quietly profound character study about the need for a closure that may never come. In that respect, Ghost Trail is exactly what it says it is; a search for something intangible, something undoubtedly there but at the same time … not.

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The French have a saying, “The wit of the staircase,” which refers to the moment when one thinks of the perfect retort to a situation that has already been and gone. A similar frustration plagues Hamid, played with simmering intensity by Adam Bessa, who we first meet in 2014 after being released from Sednaya prison, nicknamed the “Human Slaughterhouse.” Hamid isn’t so much released as abandoned, left in the harsh heat of the Syrian desert with a truckload of men in various stages of incapacitation. Hamid is rebellious to the last, but his captors resist the urge to shoot him and finish him off (“He’s dead anyway”).

Fast forward two years and we are now in Strasbourg. Hamid, who lost his wife and daughter in the Syrian war, is now on a mission, searching the city’s immigrant population with a blurry and faded photograph of someone he claims is his cousin. A strange meeting with a woman on a park bench reveals that something more complex is going on; she leaves behind a package containing a substantial amount of cash, a book (The Jasmine Scent of Damascus by Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani), and the name “Sami Hanna” written on one of its pages.


The quarry is the ghost of the title, a man named Harfaz who worked as a guard at Sednaya. Like most ghosts, Harfaz was too smart to be seen, insisting that inmates be bound and hooded before they were taken to him for extreme forms of torture (“He never saw a single face”). Despite this, Hamid, one of his many victims, has a peculiar bond with his tormentor. “I was blindfolded, but I know him like no other,” he says, claiming to remember his voice, his footsteps and even his smell. Peculiarly, it transpires much later that Harfaz also has a similar kind of sixth sense about the men he abused.

In Strasbourg, Harfaz (Tawfeek Barhom) has all but disappeared into the humdrum fabric of city life, and Hamid gets a tip-off that he has enrolled to read chemistry there. And so the shadowing begins, as Hamid tails him around campus, going where he goes, eating where he eats, pretending to study where he studies (a bitter irony, given that Hamid was a professor of literature before the war). Hamid reports to his handlers, a loose alliance of ex-pats bent on tracking down “regime deserters,” that he has finally found Harfaz, but none of them share his conviction. “You want it to be him,” they say. “It’s wishful thinking.”

This line of dialogue is perhaps the crux of the film, as the very idea of Harfaz starts to consume Hamid, who tracks his every mundane movement. In one of the film’s most effective scenes, Hamid calls his mother, who is housed in a refugee camp in Beirut. His mother asks what he’s been up to lately, and he replies with a series of banal memories stolen directly from Harfaz, about a trip to a Christmas market with an on-off girlfriend.

But things move up a notch when the two finally meet, in an extraordinary scene reminiscent of Steve McQueen’s Hunger. This is the meat of the movie, as the unexpectedly charismatic Harfaz, speaking in fluent undertone, tells Hamid, “Take advantage of this new life. Syria is in the past.” This encounter profoundly unsettles Hamid, who is forced to re-evaluate his motivation and the desire, as he once put it, just to just “kill him and move on.”

It’s a common dilemma in a revenge movie — to get satisfaction or meekly walk away — but, with the icily intelligent Ghost Trail, Millet amplifies the agony, applying it to a whole generation of Syrians left picking up the pieces of their once-normal lives, facing an aching void where their futures used to be.

Title: Ghost Trail
Festival:Cannes (Critics’ Week)
Director-screenwriter: Jonathan Millet
Cast: Adam Bessa, Tawfeek Barhom, Julia Franz Richter, Shafiqa El Till
Sales agent: MK2
Running time:1 hr 45 min

‘Ghost Trail’ Review: Revenge Is Served Cold In Jonathan Millet’s Icily Intelligent Syrian Drama – Cannes Film Festival (2024)


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