“In This World” dramatizes a world — that of the Afghan refugee — rarely, if ever, put on screen. The result lends an inherent immediacy to the film, and director Michael Winterbottom’s skill does the rest. Working with nonprofessional actors in a deliberately rough-and-ready style, the English filmmaker takes audiences on a fascinating, fast-paced, unnerving ride.
Over the years, Winterbottom has built up one of the more unusual resumes among younger filmmakers. He was among the first to bring the blight of the recent Balkan conflict to the screen in “Welcome To Sarajevo” (1997). His subsequent “Wonderland” (1999) — no relation to the new Val Kilmer movie — was set largely in a nocturnal London, and found a dimly lit beauty in the British capital.
“In This World” is sure to be unique, even among Winterbottom’s work. Part geography lesson (the screen occasionally fills with maps to tell us where we are), part political commentary, the film tells the always human story of people’s need to survive — and to be in some better place than where they are.
That’s certainly the motivation behind 16-year-old Jamal (Jamal Undin Torabi) and his older cousin, Enayat (Enayatullah), embarking upon a treacherous, costly, trek toward London. (A people smuggler has charged Enayat’s family $20,000 to fix the journey.)
And so the two men set off, across deserts and through snowstorms, bunking down in flea-pit hotels and clambering aboard available buses and trucks.
Thankfully, the film skirts sensationalism. Although tragedy does beset the pair, screenwriter Tony Grisoni’s narrative is notably spare. Instead of big scenes or stagey acting moments, “In This World” focuses on an ever-shifting landscape, communicating the sounds and smells encountered as the men cross continents. (The entire trip takes around four months.)
At times, the script could give us just a tiny bit more, especially since the film, however grainy it may look, isn’t technically a documentary.
Large-screen titles inform us of the shifts in locale without always making clear exactly how that leg of the trip was achieved. And both lead performers are remarkable presences without ever being fully realized as individuals, as if Winterbottom saw them mainly as embodying the broader issues of people trafficking.
Still, the director is right to at least put a face to the refugee-seekers and issues of political asylum that have been such a hot potato in Britain, and elsewhere.
“In This World” occupies its own perch among contemporary films. You won’t see another movie this year like it.