There's a pretty good chance that if you're an American moviegoer you're not familiar with the name Nayla Al Khaja.
The first female filmmaker in the United Arab Emirates, Al Khaja is a well known figure not only because of the success of her short films The Shadow and Animal but because of her growing reputation for telling culturally enlightening and meaningful films.
For her first feature film, Al Khaja invites us into the world of Islamic exorcism to tell the story of a boy, Ahmed (Saud Alzarooni), who becomes possessed by Djinns leading his mother, Maryam (Faten Ahmed), to seek help from an unlikely man (Jefferson Hall) who must set aside his Western thinking to save Ahmed through an intense ritual.
Fresh off its world premiere at the Red Sea International Film Festival, Three is set in Dubai. Ahmed is a seemingly normal and healthy 12-year-old, his Muslim mother divorced and she lives alongside her sister, Noora (Noura Alabed). However, as of late Ahmed has acquired an inexplicable stutter and he occasionally hears voices. Even more concerning, his behavior has become more aggressive and his placement in school has become threatened after he attacks first a schoolmate and then a teacher.
At first, it is believed there could be a neurological concern. Maryam consults with Dr. Mark Holly (Jefferson Hall), a compassionate and intelligent man who also, it must be said, is quite good looking. Despite Dr. Holly's strong belief that there is a neurological explanation for Ahmed's changes, tests continue to reveal nothing even as the behaviors and changes escalate. Noor becomes convinced that Ahmed is possessed, imploring Maryam to consult with Mullahs who can rid him of the evil spirit she believes to be inside him.
Science and faith agree, however, that Maryam's life itself is in danger and something must be done.
Grounded by a deep sense of realism, Islamic exorcism is a real practice and Al Khaja is familiar with it, Three is a horrifying journey inspired by a true story. Three doesn't so much dismiss science as acknowledge that there are life experiences, even deeply tangible ones, that science cannot explain and that faith need not explain. There's never really any doubt here that Ahmed's possession is one of profound otherness, the sort of unexplainable immersion that defies scientific solutions. Dr. Holly is never portrayed in a necessarily negative light, though his cluelessness is most certainly put on full display. He is never less than compassionate, though he is ill equipped for the battle that he enters.
Noor becomes convinced that only the Mullahs can heal Ahmed; Maryam is both a voice of reason and of faith - she simply wants to do whatever will heal her child. She is, quite simply, the mother we'd all wish to have if we ever became possessed by Djinns.
For the record, I hope I never become possessed by Djinns.
How Three cinematically spirals into solutions is extraordinary cinema with glimpses of The Exorcist for sure, though this is no doubt a film all its own tackling a subject matter most American moviegoers have never before seen.
It must be acknowledged that much like Linda Blair blew us away in 1972, young Saud Alzarooni is exceptional here as a young man both vulnerable as a 12-year-old child ought to be and possessed by an evil entity who sends him into otherworldly behaviors and violent contortions and spewing. Already a veteran actor in the Arab entertainment world, Alzarooni leaves you completely blown away here.
As Maryam, Faten Ahmed is remarkably intuitive and intelligent in her portrayal of a mother determined to care for her son while also dealing with various obstacles along the way including, we are reminded, that her being divorced is deemed a contributing factor and a negative within the Islamic faith. We are also reminded, however, that amidst the very real world of Islam there are both remarkably gifted Mullahs and shysters that would exploit a family's tragedy. Faten Ahmed's performance somehow finds the balance within it all.
Jefferson Hall excels as Dr. Holly, capturing the good doctor's determined and intelligent ways and his sense of bewilderment even as he continues to companion Ahmed into a world of which he has no understanding. I half expected to be seen as a buffoon here, however, that never happens and he is instead viewed as a man with a myriad of intelligence yet not always an equivalent understanding. Kudos as well to Noura Alabed as Noor, a woman of strong faith with a comical line or two that made me laugh out loud.
The rest of the ensemble cast is uniformly strong as Three immerses us in the world of Islamic exorcism. It's a world that has some similarities to Christian exorcism, though also some very distinct Arab rituals and practices including relentless prayers and chants, ablution, and so much more. I learned much and was completely captivated.
Lensing by Mik Allen captures deep reverence for Islamic faith and yet also the intimacy of the humans within that faith. The exorcism scenes are horrifying and jarring, the seeming immersion of a 12-year-old child within this world amplifies the power and force of it all. Three is on the fringes of what would be seen as horror, jump scares are present yet never histrionic and always grounded within the film's spiritual experiences. We become afraid because the story, co-written by Al Khaja with Ben Williams, feels so incredibly human and vulnerable and real.
Ahmed Hassan's art direction is outstanding and costume design by Wantana "Joy" Warintarawech is culturally aware and immersive. I can't help but notice that I've used the world "immersive" several times in this review, yet perhaps what is so impressive with Al Khaja's direction is that she immerses us respectfully and with great dignity in this world and tells us a story we can't possibly forget.
Continuing on its film festival journey, there's literally no doubt that Three will find a distribution home to offer it the audience it so richly deserves.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic