Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, “Rebel” is the rare film about Islamic extremism that features musical numbers. These interludes — with actors rapping and singing à la “Hamilton” — are shot like slick dream sequences, indicative of the sprawling drama’s epic ambitions. Instead “Rebel” is cringe-y and off-putting; a sexual assault is envisioned as a highly choreographed dance.
The film’s examinations of the horrors perpetrated by the Islamic State, or ISIS, begin in Brussels, where Kamal (Aboubakr Bensaihi), a Moroccan immigrant and amateur rapper, lives with his mother, Leila (Lubna Azabal), and a doting little brother, Nassim (Amir El Arbi). Disgruntled and directionless, Kamal heads to Syria as part of a slipshod humanitarian effort to assist war victims, but almost immediately he’s kidnapped by ISIS and forced to serve as the group’s videographer. Later, with a gun to his head, he’s pushed into becoming an executioner, his crimes captured on camera and disseminated by news networks back home.
Nassim, refusing to believe that his brother has gone rogue, is played like putty by an extremist henchman in Brussels who brainwashes the boy into joining the cause. Only 13, Nassim, too, ships out to Syria where he joins a group of child soldiers. In the final section of the film, Leila ventures abroad to find her little boy.
At best, this drama picks apart the Islamic State’s nefarious recruitment tactics, taking on the fresh perspective of a Muslim family in Europe. These dynamics are rich, and the consequences agonizing — so it’s too bad the filmmakers seem to think that the bigger the spectacle, the more powerfully communicated this whirlwind of politics and emotions. The opposite is the case.
Not rated. In Arabic, French, English and Dutch, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes. In theaters.