HOTEL MUMBAI (2019, Anthony Maras)
When an American tourist has to be told three times he can’t order beef at a restaurant in India, it might be seen as a throwaway moment of levity at the dawn of an impending nightmare. But it’s another sly move by director and co-writer Maras to thread together the concepts of religious ignorance and unspeakable violence. The opening shot is a gorgeous backlit vista of the Arabian sea as a boatload of Islamic terrorists cruise towards Mumbai, listening on their earbuds to their Pakistani leader reiterate how great God is, and how heaven and Allah await their dutiful souls upon completion of this jihad. Maras makes no bones about it — the fundamental (and fundamentalist) backbone of this terror is religious fervor; but subsequent scenes involving human beings struggling to connect with one another show the partially trite but also inarguably truthful observation that when we find common ground, or recognize a shared humanity amongst an Other, it can quell the instinct towards hatred, fear, and brutal attack.
One of the hostages is a bigoted, rich white woman who assumes that anyone speaking Arabic is a terrorist — but while a Russian capitalist barks at her with rage, our heroic Sikh waiter (Dev Patel, engendering untold levels of sympathy and believability) approaches her with a desire to connect with a universal appeal. It would be nice if all intolerance could be healed with reason, but the facts of this story show that won’t happen any time soon. The bulk of this movie is not scenes of rose-colored hugging and learning — it’s a virtually unparalleled and lengthy recreation of many devastating hours of bloody carnage. And Maras does not shy away — he doesn’t revel in blood spatter or graphic gore like a Zahler or Timo Tjahjanto, but he takes the responsibility of depicting the senseless and ugly murders with clear eyes and realistic physics. His visuals are handheld but not Greengrass-volcanic; edits only happen when they need to, and the geography of the hotel makes sense in every scene. This is a remarkable piece of sustained action cinema, loathsome as it may be to endure.
Rather than ignoring the terrorists completely or granting them any sympathy, he makes the smart choice of revealing that these are corrupted humans: they do feel anxious before the attack. They aren’t merciless robots. They worry about their families’ financial security, and they can be swayed into mercy by their moral code as well. But they’ve been poisoned by the kind of hateful religious fanaticism that Maras knows is at the core of true evil. Similarly, the hostages and victims are not all saints. Some are dicks, but can still do nice things. Some are kind-hearted, but make mistakes. Good people do bad things and vice versa. It’s part of human nature, and as such, the loss of this humanity makes this unending nightmare of terrorism so depressing to contemplate. It happened 11 years ago, and the only reason you’re forgiven for forgetting Mumbai is that in that past decade, this has happened so, so, so many more times. This is who we are. There’s no justifying the massacres; there’s only making sense of their consequences, and that’s what movies can do. Even the flawed ones, and this film is among them (the emotional moments are as manipulative as they are tear-jerking; the contrivances feel overly slick at times; pregnant wives at home in fear are cheap methods of developing sympathy; etc.), can contribute to our coming to terms with the violence that mankind can do, and reminding us of the sloppy, complicated shades of grey involved in being human.