Roads Of Ithriyah


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Roads Of Ithriyah
"The language of scents is used effectively to remind viewers that even at a more primitive level, there are choices, different ways of experiencing and reacting to the world."

When trying to help people recover memories, either in a medical context or, for instance, when they have witnessed crimes, one common trip is to focus on scents. Although our conscious framing of memories usually focuses on sight or sound, scent is actually a very powerful mnemonic and can bring back things we thought we had lost altogether. Javier Badillo’s début feature, inspired by the life of a perfume maker whom he met many years ago in Malaysia, follows a soldier who suffers from head injuries caused by an I.E.D. in southern Syria. Unable to remember even which side he was fighting for, Ahmad (Shayan Bayat) finds in a small bottle of perfume his only connection to the past, as it brings back memories of his mother and sister.

Flitting as it does between his time in the field and the new life he has built as a refugee in Canada, the film doesn’t tease us with the prospect of Ahmad being killed as a result of his precarious situation, but instead focuses on his emotional journey, the change in perspective brought about by his experiences and the moral challenges which it poses for him. There’s a contention that it doesn’t really matter whom he was fighting for insofar as, either way, he saw himself as one of the good guys compelled to try to stop the bad guys, horrified by the thought of the atrocities they have committed and what they might do to his loved ones. He also becomes increasingly aware that he is fighting because that is what he does, because that is what there is, out there in the middle of nowhere, and how else is a man to function?

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The title refers to the village of Ithriyah, roughly equidistant between Damascus, Aleppo and Raqqa. There, Ahmad hopes to find answers and to make himself useful again. The film was shot on sparse heathland in British Columbia, Canada, one wasteland standing in well enough for another. The truly important landscapes are internal. Badillo uses narration and animation in the opening sequence, setting the scene, but it is largely Bayat who does the heavy lifting, holding viewers’ attention during sequences without much dialogue. The introduction of another character who exists primarily as a framing device is not entirely successful, but helps with pacing.

In memory, Ahmad also inhabits a small flat belonging to his mother, who is constantly petitioning him to get a job and make a proper life for himself, to give up on his ambition to work with fragrances, just as she petitions his sister to focus on manners and appearance so as to make a good impression on prospective husbands. There is love, however, at the heart of this family, and it represents a complete world whose fullness, along with its ordinariness, stands in stark contrast to the desolation of Ahmad’s subsequent situation.

With the family facing an issue of the sort leveraged by those who sought conflict, there is a reminder here that civilisation is always fragile. The language of scents is used effectively to remind viewers that even at a more primitive level, there are choices, different ways of experiencing and reacting to the world.

Made over a six year period on a shoestring budget, this is an impressive piece of work – an ambitious effort to take on big issues, and one which holds its own alongside much bigger productions on similar themes.

Reviewed on: 20 Sep 2022
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Roads Of Ithriyah packshot
A Middle Eastern militant wakes up in the Syrian desert, the lone survivor of a IED explosion. Badly concussed and out of supplies, he must reach an outpost soon -- but he can't remember which faction of the war he was fighting for.

Director: Javier Badillo

Writer: Javier Badillo, Shayan Bayat

Starring: Shayan Bayat, Bahram Heidari, Mitra Lohrasb, Priya Margaret Kooner, Lochlyn Munro

Year: 2022

Runtime: 75 minutes

Country: Canada


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