The pressing topicality of Rachid Bouchareb’s Road To Istanbul cannot be ignored. One of the most recent investigations to scrutinise the numbers of Euro volunteers who had gone to fight in Syria said figures had nearly reached 4000; the one question the report couldn’t answer, however, was why?
This is what single-mother Elisabeth (Astrid Whettnall) suddenly finds herself having to try and comprehend, after her daughter Elodie (Pauline Burlet) flees their idyllic riverside house in Belgium to go and join the Islamic jihad. In her mother’s eyes, Elodie’s actions are impossible to understand. Though there was distance in their relationship, Elisabeth honestly believed her daughter to be happy.
Thematically, Road To Istanbul shares similarities with Bouchareb’s 7/7 drama London River; both observe the parental anxiety of those whose children have turned to extremism. As with every realm of religion, the route to radicalism is a complex one, and the director must be congratulated for trying to tackle such an incendiary issue with sensitive moderation: there are no moments of grandstanding here, and at its core is a delicately drawn performance from Astrid Whettnall – a matriarch desperate and dumbfounded by what she’s discovered, but driven by love for her daughter.A shattering encounter on Skype, in which Elodie appears to her dressed in a jilbāb, shows Elisabeth a daughter she barely recognises; behind her eyes is emptiness, a psychological void filled with an unyielding dedication to her newfound faith. Pauline Burlet plays the scene, as she does the whole film, perfectly, channelling an obdurate intensity.
Propelled by their confrontation, and with the authorities refusing to offer any official help, Elisabeth sets off to Turkey determined to bring her daughter back by crossing the border into Syria, and finding Elodie.
Road To Istanbul is very much a minor take on a major topic, and herein is the catch. A pointed final sequence may haunt in its crushing candidness, but this regularly feels like a film that’s only telling us half the story. Elodie wasn’t born a Muslim. She’s a convert, yet we are never given any insight into what compelled her change. Despite being an intrinsic part of the narrative, no vision is ever given into her character, and as such the subject is ultimately ill-served; the script instead trusting in Elisabeth’s journey as the emotional rock.
Bouchareb’s direction is dutiful but dull; overwrought in its execution, and imbued with cloudy colours that muddy the emotive reality. For a film demanding such a big conversation, its regularly too muted to make much noise.