Bas Devos’s hypnotic and woozy Belgium film centers on a middle-aged Muslim woman, a widow, who gets lost during the late hours in Brussels. The film becomes very dreamlike and humanistic as it observes in small and understated details about disconnection, grief, and regret. It depicts a city at sleep, a film that taps into the human subconscious as metro’s, gas stations, hospitals, empty streets, and avenues serve as a metaphor for one woman’s absence, loneliness, and discoveries. Devos uses these nocturnal locales as a reflection of feeling alone and as a journey into one’s psyche and soul
“Ghost Tropic” offers an elegiac and ethereal style that pulls you with it’s hallucinatory imagery and sensory tone. The film can also be read as a condemnation of modern Belgian as well as a subtle commentary on Europe’s own attitudes on Islamophobia, poverty, and xenophobia. These ideas are apparent, but are never fully overstated or heavy-handed. The film just observes these realities as a woman who attempts to navigate her way during the very late hours. Certainly in the tradition of Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours,” Spike Lee’s “25th Hour,” and even the Safdie Bros. “Good Time,” Devo’s plays on the structure of the one night film setting.
While far less absurdist, dramatically wrenching, and anxiety-inducing and minimal by design than those films, “Ghost Tropic” also plays as a tribute on the city of Brussels. The film also dives deep into the psyche with rich abstractions and stunning 16mm Kodak cinematography by Grimm Vandekerckhove who does wonders with the film’s grainy film stock and a 1:33:1 boxed-in ratio that heightens the protagonists uncertain journey into the night that she accidentally finds herself in.
(Image Courtesy of Cinema Guild)
The film focuses on a middle-aged cleaning Muslim woman, Khadija (Saadia Bentajeb), who attempts to make it home during the very late night hours of the night after falling asleep on the cities metro. In one of the films most beautiful transitions, the camera observes with meticulous framing as the sounds fades out with impressive sound design as these dreamlike drones reflect her own release into serotonin as her night becomes more reflective as we learn in small doses who this woman really is. A woman who is widowed, lonely, missing somebody, and disconnected from her daughter. However, her journey into the night opens a gateway for her to show her compassion as the film serves the night as is the end to a brand new day that always follows with a new beginning.
During the opening of the film we see Khadija laughing amongst a group of friends during a house gathering. She can’t control her laughter as they are laughing about a story or fond memory. It gets late, and as noted above she falls asleep only to find herself on the metro as she ends up on the opposite side of the city. With alluring and fragile beauty, it’s almost as if Khadija embraces and accepts the notion of staying out. Almost as if she feels that there is a spiritual or greater purpose in her abruptly disorientated night. She ends up enduring some hindrances such as her bank account being overdrawn, and a local bus that won’t take off. She walks further into the night and has encounters with mall security guards, police officers, nurses, and one of the most compelling scenes involving an exchange with a gas station attendant who shows her some kindness at night after she lets her warm up as she closes the store down for the night.
While certainly deliberately paced that anyone can dismiss as “slow,” Devos has a very singular style that is aesthetically impressive that showcases the nighttime in a way I haven’t seen so breathtaking since Michael Mann and Sofia Coppola. The use of the ambient lights utilized from street and shop lights give the film a keen artistry and elevation that pulls you in with its sublime and otherworldly done. There is something spatial and deliberately dozy, in which the tone and style often allow the camera to feel like it’s tranquil as it hovers and tracks with Khadija.
As the film progresses we learn in a elegantly shot scene of Khadiija and the gas station clerk revealing that her husband died, and that she has been widowed for 10 years, she is a mother of two children, and we begin to pull many pieces together of who this woman really is as nothing is fully spelled out for us. The way the camera observes the two women in the car at the start of the scene as the camera surveys through the vehicles window as it focuses on city lights in the foreground is one of the most artfully staged and memorable moments in the film, and also an exquisite highlight of 2020.
It is never spelled out how strong Khadija is with her Islamic father, she does wear a Hijab, and Devos brings a curiosity to her characters where things are visually surveyed instead of being told. It’s a fascinating idea that interpreters’ old values are now slipping away as her daughter isn’t wearing a hijab as she is participating in a state of modernity.
Throughout the course of it’s short 80 mins running time, Devos film may feel sluggish to some, however, it’s easy to surrender yourself to due to it’s visual splendor and ravishing tone. Devos has a minimalistic style that is common among European auteurs, but the style is very unique that captures the wonders of being human, even if it’s just for one night. Devos never compromises Kahdija’s odyssey to service a simple narrative yarn with simple exposition, not even with her interactions with others that captures her unspoken longing.
Devo is a modest filmmaker, yet his film “Ghost Tropic” earns its place as being another small treasure of 2020. It is certainly one of the more inquisitive films of 2020, a woman just wondering the streets sounds so simple, yet there is so much beauty to behold. There is a contemplative nature to this film that makes it so uncanny. Everything in it holds some visually sublime beauty, even the gorgeous looks of street lights to the striking handheld shot of Kahdija’s daughter observing a beach holds such a cumulative power that will awe you with its pure visual splendor.