"Rabia" opens with a scene that immediately engenders in the viewer a sense of profound disquietude and apprehension. Moments after Rabia wraps explosives around her waist and secures them with duct tape, she calmly applies makeup as if she's bound for nothing more menacing than a lunch date.
Director Muhammad Ali Hasan takes pains to set Rabia up as coolly venomous and a skilled liar in the film's first moments, then cleverly forces the viewer to empathize with Rabia's struggle to free herself from a tight spot. This humanizing moment serves as an introduction to an overarching theme as compelling as it is disturbing. Rabia's violent aspirations become relatable within minutes. By the time that Hasan shows us the moment of Rabia's enlistment in a terrorist organization, it feels like a feminist triumph.
Hasan's debut film doesn't lose sight of the humanity of Rabia's intended victims, even as we come to understand Rabia's motivations. In one scene, another character powerfully expresses dismay and fear upon learning of Rabia's plans. The young woman's grief is palpable and raw, particularly when contrasted with the calm Rabia strives to project in defending her decision. Yet, for all her bravado, Rabia hasn't managed to erase her ties to life. She desperately wants approval and is visibly hurt when she receives instead a series of tearful remonstrations.
Later, Rabia casts off traditional gender roles with delight as she approaches her violent end. After earlier seeing her collapse in a crumpled, miserable heap following a man's rejection, the viewer cannot help but cheer when Rabia loudly and sometimes violently asserts herself in her last interactions with men.
In the film's suspenseful and eerily beautiful final scene, Rabia seems for the first time fully at ease in her surroundings. She is radiant and serene. Strolling contentedly toward death, Rabia seems to be reborn. It's apparent that she may be experiencing her first-ever moments of pleasurable solitude and freedom. The last choice Rabia makes is one that will stay with the viewer long after the film's final credits roll.
Muhammad Ali Hasan acquits himself remarkably well in his first outing as a writer and director. Hanieh Jodat is mesmerizing as the title character, while Aleek Aintablian steals the show in her brief appearance as a sweet, bold young Rabia.
Inasmuch as this film's aim is to emphasize the complexity of terrorism and deconstruct worldviews in which suicide bombers are by nature monstrous and evil, it succeeds mightily. Yet, rather than buying into martyr worship or wholeheartedly endorsing acts of egregious violence, "Rabia" offers a morsel of hope: We see several pivotal moments in Rabia's life, each of which might have offered the opportunity to save Rabia from self-destruction, had someone touched her heart in the right way at the right time. Will audiences respond to Hasan's call for compassion toward those who in some ways least deserve it, yet who need it most?