Both a harrowing war movie and a political thriller, Rebel is a terrifying glimpse into the world of modern-day terrorism.
Cinema has four main purposes: to entertain, to thrill, to inform, and to expand perspectives. Most films seek to do one or two of these things, yet Rebel does all four. The film can sometimes struggle to do all these tasks at once, but it never struggles to keep your attention. When coming into this movie, I did not know what to expect, but upon leaving I was moved, shocked, horrified, and changed. Directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah bring Hollywood sensibilities and visual flair to make this a compelling watch and a harrowing experience I will not forget any time soon.
Rebel starts with the story of Kamal Wasaki (Aboubakr Bensaihi), a young rapper and bike enthusiast living in Brussels with his mother, Leila (Lubna Azabal), and his younger brother, Nassim (Amir El Arbi). Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, he ends up joining ISIS. The film is not interested in a fall-from-grace narrative. It isn’t concerned with redemption. Instead, it focuses on the effects of Kamal’s actions, both on his new environment in Syria and on his family.
The film lets other characters’ stories take center stage to examine the varied effects of ISIS on Muslim people across the world. Kamal’s new bride, Nour (Tara Abboud), offers us a view into the difficult lives of women and people living under the control of ISIS. In Nassim, we get to see the power confusion and isolation that losing a family member to ISIS can bring. And in Leila, we watch a mother’s desperate attempt to keep her family together, and the lengths people will go to to protect the people they love.
Rebel is not for the faint of heart. It is one of the most intense experiences I have ever had watching a film. One of the things that makes this film so impressive is its authenticity, particularly in the action sequences. How war is represented is a key element of Rebel. It uses its set pieces to show the chaos and terror that the violence in Syria has wrought on its own communities. The first of these sequences is so loud and so terrifying that I thought the film could only get more tame from there.
But with every set piece, the filmmaking is even more impressive. Clearly, Adil and Bilall have learned from working on big-budget Hollywood productions like Bad Boys for Life, because the sequences are polished yet visceral. The use of long takes, handheld, visual techniques, and sound effects are so exceptionally timed and used that they create an immersive look into warfare unlike anything I have seen. This unique visual representation of war is great at setting this film apart from other war movies and distinguishing the fighting of ISIS from anything you have seen represented in movies previously.
Outside of craft, the story itself obviously lends itself to tension and intensity. The movie deals with this level of serious subject matter by plunging you into the emotions of the people experiencing ISIS in various forms. The screenplay (written by Adil and Bilall along with Kevin Meul and Jan van Dyck) is surprising and rich. Kamal, played by a wonderful Bensaihi, is a compelling lead, filled with pathos and regret, and his experiences in ISIS both in conflict and outside of it are told in such innovative ways.
But the real secret to Rebel is the supporting characters, who all get their chance to shine. Nassim, his younger brother (the actor, Amir El Arbi, is the younger brother of director Adil), has the most heartwrenching arch. His brother’s defection has left him broken, and the journey he goes on, without spoiling, is the most engaging part of the film. Kamal also meets a woman named Nour who has been sold into slavery by ISIS, and Abboud’s portrayal of the plight of the residents of Syria, particularly the women, is an eye-opener. She is certainly an actress to watch. And the strength and bravery of Kamal and Nassim’s mother is astounding. Azabal is masterful at crafting a woman who will do anything to fight for her family, and she has one of the most surprising turns in the film.
Also, the smaller performances by minor characters are excellent and background actors all do a great job. Without their presence and general menace, the film wouldn’t have worked. The script weaves in and out of these stories, propelling us to invest more into the story and the characters as it goes on, which makes the stakes of the film only rise.
Rebel is not without its flaws. The film features three musical numbers which are meant to take us deeper into the psychologies of the characters. While I enjoyed their presence (the second one is truly breathtaking), they all took me out of the pressure cooker of the movie and distracted me from the plot. Additionally, the film’s intensity can work against it at times. I love intense movies like this, but with such serious and grave subject matter, the stakes constantly have to rise to keep our engagement. The film certainly does this, but this ratcheting up of tension can be too much for some viewers. If you do not like intense movies, you shouldn’t watch this film. It certainly is not what I would call a pleasant watching experience. This is a tough movie, but it deserves to be one and it certainly deserves attention.
The key takeaway I had from Rebel is that my perception of ISIS has been flawed. As an American, my understanding of ISIS comes from a Western perspective. The way that I have interacted with terror is through terrorist attacks in the west like Paris, Brussels, and 9/11. But while these events are awful and brutal, ISIS has launched a conflict in the Middle East and within the Muslim community that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and has displaced millions, destroying countless in the process.
This film is from a Muslim perspective, and it is a film for Muslim audiences. ISIS as an entity can be faceless and amorphous, but Rebel uses its characters to show the impact of ISIS on the global Muslim community. It brings us to the feelings of isolation that can lead to indoctrination, the reality of the violence that ISIS has wrought, and the devastation that they leave behind. Rebel helps us understand the system of terror through the community that within itself is trying to fight against it while the rest of Western society demonizes them for sharing the same God as people who pervert their religion.
I believe one of the purposes of cinema is to expand your perspective. You can certainly do that through American movies, or lighter international fare. But I encourage you to consider watching Rebel instead. As a non-Muslim and a Westerner, this film completely changed my perspective on ISIS and it allowed me to understand how ISIS affects the Muslim community. It is an affecting piece of cinema for sure, very well crafted, and I highly recommend it, not just to people interested in politics or ISIS, but lovers of war movies and thrillers as well. This is not a movie you will be able to forget.
Rebel (2023) is now available to watch in US theaters.