Cinema Review: Shelter | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, October 24th, 2021  


Studio: Menemsha Films
Directed by Eran Riklis

Apr 03, 2018 Web Exclusive
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“God plays poker with us,” Lebanese fugitive Mona (Golshifteh Farahani) says wearily to her Mossad handler as they hide in a German safehouse. “The problem is, we always lose.” It’s not just an evocative line, delivered by Farahani with the kind of conviction that can only come from someone who’s lost one too many hands; it’s practically a thesis statement for Shelter itself.

Directed by Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis, Shelter is a spy thriller about two women who are trying to keep a low profile from Hezbollah assassins. Naomi (Neta Riskin), an Israeli Mossad agent who’s been out of the spy game for a few years, gets sent to Germany to watch over a volatile informant. Numb from drugs and emotional trauma, Mona the informant is recovering from plastic surgery that’s given her a new face. While the two women try to figure out whether or not they can trust each other, hitmen and spies from other nations are on the hunt for their safehouse.

Like most good works of spy fiction, much of the tension of Shelter comes from human lives being reduced to poker chips in the hands of higher forces. Mona and Naomi don’t know if they can trust each other or the people who put them together in the first place. Shelter is at its most compelling when it leans into that paranoia.

Both characters present potentially menacing surfaces: Naomi is a cold, wary professional while Mona looks like something out of Eyes Without A Face. Bandaged up and flat-voiced, Farahani’s Mona is an unsettling presence. Unfortunately Riklis’s script ruins whatever mystique Mona (and the rest of the film) has.

Shelter is the kind of film that has characters talking about deception and bluffings while playing a game of poker. It breaks the “show, don’t tell” storytelling rule over and over again. Rather than showing us Mona and Naomi distrusting each other, it has them say lines like “Trust you? Why should I trust you? I don’t trust anyone.” The only way Riklis could have laid these themes out any thicker is if he called his film Trust No One: The Motion Picture.

Farahani has the lion share of Shelter’s on-the-nose lines. While Riskin’s Naomi feels like a three-dimensional human being, one that’s buckling under the weight of a lifetime of regrets and anxiety, Mona feels like the director’s mouthpiece. Her blunt declarations spelling out the politics and emotional subtext of the film aren’t helped by Farahani’s paralyzed line readings.

In Jarmusch’s Paterson, Farahani imbued her character with warmth and charm. In Shelter she’s a broken and hollow human target. It’s a performance that’s true to the circumstances of her character, but one that doesn’t leave much room for the audience to connect with her. She does her best with the material, selling certain lines like God playing poker beautifully, but the script doesn’t succeed in making her feel like more than just a means to an end.

Riklis fares better as a visual stylist. He gets the most out of his urban landscapes: the glittering lights of Beirut’s skyline, the twisting and claustrophobic stairwells in German apartment buildings. And while his script lacks subtlety, Riklis is still able to stage moments of surprising grace. Halfway through the film, Naomi and Mona bond over a night of drinking wine and giving each other makeovers. It’s a rare moment of unforced and genuine connection between the two of them. If only Shelter had more of these moments to make us see Naomi and Mona as more than just spycraft ciphers.

Author rating: 4/10

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