The wars in Gaza and Ukraine have dominated headlines for the past several years, yet receiving relatively little coverage today is the Syrian civil war, sparked in the wake of 2011’s Arab Spring. It is yet ongoing and stands now at an uneasy stalemate. Over a decade of fighting, horrifying humanitarian and war-time crimes were committed; all the while 13 million Syrians were displaced from their homes. These refugees, lost in foreign countries offering asylum, are still looking for answers and perhaps a reckoning and retribution. Director Jonathan Millet’s debut narrative feature Ghost Trail dives deep into one survivor’s psyche and lays bare the cost of a conflict from which the world seems to have moved on.

In Strasbourg, France, mild-mannered asylum-seeker Hamid (Adam Bessa) is doing odd jobs, moving in Syrian exile circles, looking for a man who he says is his cousin lost during the war. Occasionally he rents a business suite and speaks to his old mother over Zoom. She’s in a Lebanese refugee camp while he pretends he’s successfully working in Berlin. Only gradually does Millet reveal that Hamid is actually part of a secret, Europe-based organization looking for Syrian war criminals who have adopted disguises and aliases and disappeared into European society. The man Hamid is hunting down is Harfaz, an especially notorious war criminal and Hamid’s own torturer, back from when Hamid was illegally imprisoned in Syria.

Hamid doggedly searches for Harfaz but only has a blurry photo to go by. Hamid was in a head bag when Harfaz tortured him––neither torturer nor tortured know what the other looks like. But Hamid remembers Harfaz’s voice, the smell of his breath and sweat, the sound of his footsteps, and the force of his blows. Millet smartly avoids flashbacks of the torture, resisting the urge to stage gratuitous violence. Instead those episodes are only recounted in the words of Hamid’s testimony––far more harrowing and powerful for it. Keeping the torture offscreen preserves the identity of Harfaz and helps maintain suspense.

Hamid’s spy cell is following a man in Germany who they believe to be Harfaz; instead Hamid latches onto Hasaan (Tawfeek Barhom) as his primary suspect. Hamid despairingly watches the man who he believes to be his torturer living a life denied to him––Hasaan dresses suavely and works out, is a university student integrated into French society, and even has a French girlfriend. Hamid meanwhile suffers from a broken body and crippling PTSD while grieving for his murdered wife and daughter. Millet stresses that these citizen spies, based on real-life figures, are not spies-by-trade. They are regular people, lawyers and teachers committing their lives to the cause of justice. It is heroic, righteous, and noble, but also incredibly isolating. It only buries them deeper into the traumas that they are trying to escape.

That is especially true of Hamid, so crippled by all the secrecy and uncertainty that he rebuffs the advances of Yara (Hala Rajab), a fellow Syrian exile who is helping him and desires to be intimate. The scope of loss wrought by the Syrian war is also embodied by Nina (Julia Franz Richter), a German woman part of Hamid’s group, seeking revenge for her murdered Syrian husband. In the face of unspeakable crimes committed by war criminals and the dim prospect of trials and convictions, Millet forces us to contemplate the morality of extra-judicial assassinations as perhaps the few means of closure available to survivors.

Bessa delves deep into the literally and figuratively tortured Hamid, offering a compelling portrait of wounded masculinity and a curbed spirit. In the few scenes where he is afforded a close-up, his haunted, piercing gaze communicates volumes. Barhom is exceptionally magnetic, with a lengthy dialogue scene toward the end a showcase for the actor, showing off considerable screen charisma. Both help bring pedigree to the project. Barhom was the star of Tarik Saleh’s Boy From Heaven/Cairo Conspiracy, which won a prize at Cannes two years ago; Bessa won the Best Actor prize in Un Certain Regard in 2022 for Lotfy Nathan’s Harka and is also part of Netflix’s Extraction franchise.

Millet has a documentary background that serves him well in his feature-directing debut. Contemporary France and the refugee camps in Lebanon are filmed with realism. Scenes of covert trailing and photographing of suspects seem almost too easy to pull off, even if modern society has made surveillance rather effortless. The standard first-feature pitfalls are largely not present, though some of the dialogue in the spy-cell meetings, conducted over Twitch-like streams of first-person shooter games, prove a bit too expository. A prologue set in Syria, taking place two years before the main story, could’ve been excised.

Ghost Trail leaves a lasting impression, especially from its redemptive ending where choices are made to reward the audience’s emotional and moral investment. The film communicates a sense of hope for a displaced people, a roadmap to the future, the possibility of absolution.

Ghost Trail premiered in the Critics’ Week section at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: B

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