Tn irate man barges into a maternity ward with an AK-47 and guns down his wife and the male doctor who just delivered his baby. Why? Because he’s a highly conservative Muslim and he can’t tolerate another man touching his wife? Sure. Because Saudi Arabian director Meshal Aljaser is a fan of grand gestures and what better way to open his first feature, Naga, than with an over-the-top, blood-soaked non-sequitur? Now you’re talking. Narratively and emotionally there’s little reason to frontload the film with such an emotionally intense piece of grand guignol, but it gets you on edge and, based on the relentless 105-minute long rollercoaster ride that follows, on edge is precisely the place Aljaser wants you to be.
Flashing forward a few decades to today, that baby is now a rebellious, emotionally volatile woman in her 20s, Sarah (Adwa Bader), struggling to get out from under her overbearing father’s control. Coerced by her secret boyfriend to take a trip out to the desert to do hallucinogens and go to a party, Sarah tells her family she’s going to the market and hits the road under the promise she’ll be back by 10. Soon, however, their romantic day out quickly turns into a night in hell replete with a flamethrower wielding dirt-bike gang, a blow-hard national poet with a deep ire for Sarah, and a murderous pregnant camel intent on avenging the death of her son. Yet no matter how bad it gets, Sarah is always quick to remember that the worst threat of all is always her dad.
Watching Naga is like watching 15 great music videos in a row – it’s one set-piece after another, the volume is always on high, and every scene is intent on convincing you that it’s the craziest, coolest thing you’ve ever seen. There is little emotional rhyme or reason to the relentless string of obstacles hurled at Sarah; it’s one isolated moment of anxiety after another that essentially adds up to the same idea lobbed at you over and over again: shit’s crazy. It’s as tiring as it is exhilarating, but the craziest thing about it is simply that the whole enterprise works. Naga is, ultimately, a hip, fun movie that’s worth the ride so long as a ride is all you’re looking for. I always wanted more even when I wanted it to end.
If it succeeds, it succeeds largely on Aljaser’s merits as a director. Piggybacking on the success of his high-concept shorts, such as Arab Alien (2020) and Is Sumayati Going to Hell? (2016), and flush with Netlfix money, Aljaser is able to pump Naga full of verve and style that’s mostly measured and clever, only rarely overweening. Expressionistic angles, Hitchcockian montages, and subtle psychedelic effects are pulled off with aplomb, almost always building tension more than showing off, and Aljaser knows how to build his ideas across absurd throughlines – like the hunt for a samsung charger – that keep the rhythm rolling steadily along even if the action is somewhat episodic.
If Aljaser has a favourite stylistic move, it’s a woozy, disorienting 360 degree camera spin. Whole set-pieces are constructed around these gestures, which start rotating around one centripetal point of focus (be it a singer in the middle of a circle of dancers at a party or Sarah’s father running up a round staircase in anger), before gradually drifting and tilting every which way until the whole image is upside down. It’s an exhilarating technique that bowled me over the first two or three times it appeared, then nauseated me every time after. It’s an apt metaphor for Naga, the whole film, itself.
Naga is in the Official Competition of the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival. It premiered earlier this year in the Toronto Film Festival.