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film review
  • In Flames
  • Written and directed by Zarrar Kahn
  • Starring Ramesha Nawal, Omar Javaid, Bakhtawar Mazhar, Adnan Shah Tipu, Mohammad Ali Hashmi and Jibran Khan
  • Classification N/A; 98 minutes
  • Opens in theatres April 12

Critic’s pick

A young woman navigates her society’s suffocating toxic masculine energy. That’s the basic premise behind Zarrar Kahn’s Karachi-set horror thriller In Flames. But that could also describe about a dozen other movies that have come out in the past year, including the “go girl!” spectacle that was Barbie and its darker twin Poor Things; the hair-raising workplace thrillers Fair Play and The Royal Hotel and the recent nunsploitation double bill of Immaculate and The First Omen.

In Flames – a ghost story where the men are so entitled, they continue to harass women from beyond the grave – finally joins the zeitgeist in theatres after kicking around the festival circuit for months.

Kahn’s debut feature premiered at Cannes last May, becoming the first film to come out of Telefilm Canada’s microbudget Talent To Watch program – a funding stream designed to discover new voices – to land at the fest. After that it picked up a few international laurels and became Pakistan’s official submission for the Academy Awards.

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It only scored two nominations at the coming Canadian Screen Awards (for visual effects and first feature) – which, in my mind, says more about our voting bodies than what Kahn and his wondrous star, newcomer Ramesha Nawal, pull off.

Nawal plays Mariam, a willful college girl living in a tiny Karachi apartment with her kid brother and her mother (Bakhtawar Mazhar), a widow struggling to make ends meet. Like almost every lead in the so-called “elevated horror” trend (think movies such as The Babadook and Midsommar, which In Flames is certainly in league with) Mariam is traumatized. She’s haunted by memories of domestic violence, which at some point turns into an actual haunting. When she catches sight of men staring from a distance, we often can’t tell whether they are creepy spectres or just more of the rando creeps who terrorize her in the wild.

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A still from In Flames, starring newcomer Ramesha Nawal.Supplied

Mariam endures lewd acts, violent attacks and gaslighting by those who abuse whatever semblance of authority they hold. Even the guys eagerly trying to help her pose a threat, because white knighting comes with its own sense of entitlement and transactional opportunism. When Mariam’s asthma flares up, you know it’s because misogyny hangs thick in the atmosphere.

Kahn directs all this with a stranglehold on our nerves, only losing his grip during a final act where satisfying genre demands and reaching for a catharsis feels beyond the film’s reach. But its reach is mighty. Rarely do we see a debut feature make such spectacular use of a minuscule budget (though the horror genre is usually where directorial talents test what they can do with soundscape, elegant imagery and suggestion). I won’t soon forget what In Flames does with a motorcycle helmet’s reflective visor, the briefly glimpsed reflection of a truck and the lingering sound of its horn.

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In Flames is written and directed by Zarrar Kahn.Supplied

When In Flames premiered at Cannes last year, I compared it with Ari Aster’s Hereditary, but suggested Kahn’s film has more heart and conviction. I stand by that. Aster’s earlier movies often feel too preoccupied with chasing their influences – Stanley Kubrick, Nicolas Roeg and Roman Polanski – rather than rooting for their own characters. The women leading Hereditary and Midsommar go from helplessly suffering to embracing their agony.

In Flames doesn’t feel as oppressive because Mariam has the space to seek and experience joy despite her traumas. As a character, she’s more aligned with the women in the other inspirational movies that fill up Kahn’s vision board: Mati Diop’s soulful and achingly melancholic ghost story Atlantics and Jordan Peele’s Us.

Nawal smoothly sails between moments where Mariam’s fear is palpable, when she has the jittery physicality of a squirrel, and the little reprieves, when she’s feisty, charming and somehow willing to chase romance. Yes, romance, even when men – not just in this movie but all those others – have proven to be disappointments at best.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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