Toronto 2023 Review: IN FLAMES, the Supernatural Meets Patriarchal Conditioning

Editor, Canada; Montréal, Canada (@bonnequin)
Toronto 2023 Review: IN FLAMES, the Supernatural Meets Patriarchal Conditioning

The term 'gaslighting' is now quite ubiquitous, and one which still remains scoffed at by many (usually those who hold power). But if you're a member of a marginalized group, that gaslighting could come not just from one person, but an entire society, especially one hellbent on keeping some groups marginalized. To say patriarchal ideology is gaslighting might seem to minimize its impact, but on an individual level, this is how it can feel, in every moment, in every activity, for every woman.

Zarrar Kahn's feature debut takes this psychological state to a whole new level. In Flames in an intense psychological horror, one that tightens its vice with a slow and deliberate intensity that challenges the viewer to feel what it's like to have your every move, every thought questioned, mocked, until you are backed into a corner with no way out.

It starts with a seemingly random yet frightening moment: Mariam (Ramesha Nawal), a young medical student, is driving to the library when a stranger throws a brick throw her car window, then screams at her as she drives away in a panic. While her grandfather once held a position of esteem in their neighbourhood in Karachi, his recent death means that she, her mother Fariha (Bakhtawar Mazhar) and brother Bilal are now at the financial mercy of her uncle. Her uncle comes back into their lives out of nowhere, seeming to want to help, though Mariam questions his motives. Meanwhile as when sometimes the very bad is accompanied by the very bad, fellow student Asad (Omar Javaid) begins courting Mariam. But a terrible accident seems to compound her fragile mental state, sending her on a spiral of seeming hallucinations and very real dangers from men both known and unknown.

The shock of the accident starts to drag Miriam into a terrifying place, one where it seems she cannot trust her own senses. She sees a man watching her from the window, using her for his own pleasure, and when she tries to have something done about it, the image of Asad flashes before her - a haunting which, rather than subtle and shadowed, is raw and bursting with anger. She reaches out with hestitant determination to find out the truth, but every proverbial road is blocked by either an official to whom she cannot tell the truth, or by a man, of any position in her society, against whom she has no recourse.

Mariam straddles two worlds: one in which she can study to be a doctor which should, in theory, give her independence, and another in which she is still expected to conform, which would mean marriage and children. The former world is not without its problems, but it's one in which she can find some form of power in her own self and place in society; the latter, however, is the world in which she exists, and one which it seems she cannot escape. Kahn shows this world as operating both covertly and overtly; a kind hand that reaches out to help, only to selfishly take without retribution; institutions such as the police and the law make it clear that a woman will never be given the help and justice she deserves, because she will never be believed.

Mariam can't trust her senses, and for much of the film, neither can we. Are her hallucinations a result of a mental illness, or the lingering shock of the accident? She is constantly reminded that every choice she makes, even if it's one she wanted, is due to the leniency of the patriarchal society in which she lives (in which most of us live), and if she steps one toe out of line, she will be punished. Cinematographer Aigul Nurbulatova mimics Mariam's psychological state as she is pulled back into a world where she will conform: slow shots, intense visions created by her guilt, her loss, seemingly intent on burying any anger which would spur her to fight back against this system.

Wrapping this story in the supernatural is not an effort to detract from the seriousness of the situation; in fact the opposite: Kahn knows that women, like any marginalized group, are subject to nightmares that those in positions of power cannot comprehend (since to do so would force them to confront that position). Mariam, and soon her mother, are constantly at the mercy of hands both seen and unseen, eyes that watch their every twitch, to find the moment these women can be bent to will. And it might only be through their collective strength that they can break free of these chains.

In Flames does not let its characters, or audience, rest easy in its earthy, tangible hauntings, ones that spring from the violence barely contained beneath a veneer of politeness and conformity to which only some are truly subject.

Disclaimer: Todd Brown, founder and editor of ScreenAnarchy, is an executive producer of this film. He had no input on this review.

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Adnan Shah TipuBakhtawar MazharIn FlamesJibran KhanMohammad Ali HashmiOmar JavaidRamesha NawalToronto 2023Zarrar Kahn

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