Credit: Cannes ACID
by Michael Sicinski Featured Festival Coverage Film

In Retreat — Maisam Ali [Cannes ’24 Review]

May 24, 2024

In Retreat, the debut feature from Iranian-born Ladhaki director Maisam Ali, is the sort of film one hates to be negative about. It’s made on a small budget, and bears enough idiosyncrasies to indicate that it’s a very personal project. But one thing about first films is that it can take some time for an artist to articulate their worldview in a manner that others can access. While In Retreat is a 75-minute film about a relatively aimless wanderer, it feels very confined, even hermetic. It’s unclear what Ali wants an audience to take away from In Retreat, other than perhaps admiring its frequently lovely cinematography.

The film follows an unnamed man (Harish Khanna) who has returned to his hometown after a long but unspecified absence. He’s back because his brother has just passed away, and he clearly feels some imperative to see his family and pay his respects. But the man goes anywhere and everywhere aside from his nephew’s home, where what’s left of his family resides. A study of an avoidant personality, In Retreat is itself a deeply avoidant film, lighting upon various potential themes and ideas without ever really taking them on. Instead, we see the man eat a bowl of soup in a restaurant at closing time, get picked up by some party guys who take him to a ceremony where he’s absolutely unwelcome, and end up on the periphery of a local skirmish involving rival groups of men whose grievance, like so much in the film, remains ambiguous.

Ali seems to be taking his cues from the so-called “slow cinema” movement, and his nightbound, mostly static cinematography bears some resemblance to the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, an auteur known for skirting around matters of plot. But even by those standards, In Retreat is aimless and soporific, giving the viewer so little to hold onto that the experience becomes one of impatience and frustration. In theory, Ali offers an objective correlative to his protagonist’s experience, asking us to drift around the edges of a prodigal son’s return and its ensuing emotional fallout. But for a film like In Retreat to connect, the unrelated business in the margins — and In Retreat is nothing but margins — needs to be illuminating, or at least informative. The most intriguing parts of the film are recurring images of a young girl making a pencil drawing of the town. But these brief scenes float alongside everything else, offering neither a metacommentary on the action nor a cognitive map for the viewer. Ali demonstrates that he has a basic command of cinematic form, and perhaps in the future he’ll place those skills in the service of more robust, fully formed ideas

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 2.