You will never again complain about flying coach after seeing “In This World,” Michael Winterbottom’s gripping new movie about a pair of Afghan refugees on a harsh overland journey from Southwest Asia to London.
Part of a four-movie package sponsored by the Sundance Film Series, “In This World” pauses a few times for some data-laden editorializing about the plight of the world’s displaced poor and to show a hackneyed animated map, but those are minor flaws.
The rest of this taut, slender movie, which takes place in the wake of the recent U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, is nothing but reality — raw, rank and naked.
Its lead actors don’t even seem like actors for a simple reason: They aren’t. Jamal Udin Torabi and Enayatullah are amateurs basically playing themselves.
Shot entirely and, for once, usefully on digital video, “World” begins and ends like a documentary, with Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan, at the base of the famed Khyber Pass, small and smiling for the interlopers with fancy machines.
In between is the voyage, on which IDs and currency and shifty people called “fixers” are as important as food and water: from Peshawar (an Afghan camp on Pakistan’s western frontier) to Iran, back to Pakistan, through Iran again. Then to Turkey and, finally, into Western Europe, the paradisiacal peninsula that imports Muslim refugees at a rate second only to these United States.
Jamal, a tough and clever teenager, convinces the older Enayat’s uncle that, with his rudimentary English and hook into the human smuggling market, he should tag along for the trip East.
Off they go, leaving behind fearful, heartbroken but cautiously hopeful relatives — an affecting moment, but Mr. Winterbottom, who tackled the aftermath of another small war in “Welcome to Sarajevo,” doesn’t linger long.
This movie really moves; it’s hyperkinetic, constantly in motion as it follows Jamal and Enayat crouching on cargo trucks, hoofing through brutal cold mountain terrain and, most harrowingly, hiding in dark containers on a freighter steaming from Istanbul to a port city on Italy’s Adriatic coast, while a baby belonging to another fleeing couple wails in disoriented fear.
There’s motion and there’s darkness; most of the traveling is nocturnal, sometimes shot through what looks like grainy night-vision goggles. When it’s light, “World” is brown and gray and bleak.
Cinematographer Marcel Zyskind captures bluish moonlight mornings and the occasional big yellow sunrise, but the image of the desert, of brownness, is what leaves an impression.
There are moments of human relief — an ice cream cone, a new pair of shoes, a game of catch — and Dario Marianelli’s score is calmly impassioned, but “World,” in its accumulation of small terrors and constant privations, as well as one big tragedy, is a sad and shocking movie.
By the time the refugees reach European shores, “World” falters a bit; the element of the exotic is lost and the dangers slacken.
In the end, Jamal finally reveals what the movie’s title means. Simply: It means alive, surviving … moving.
With “In This World,” Michael Winterbottom has made a modest, relevant and quietly brilliant little movie.
TITLE: “In This World”
RATING: R (Brief stream of profanity)
CREDITS: Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Produced by Andrew Eaton and Anita Overland. Written by Tony Grisoni. Cinematography by Marcel Zyskind. Original music by Dario Marianelli.
RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes, in Pashtu and Farsi with English subtitles, exclusively at Loews Georgetown.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS