Turning a deeply serious, controversial incident in recent German history into a bouncy, beat-the-odds character comedy is a brave move. Thanks in large part to the extrovert likability of German-Turkish star Meltem Kaptan — well-known in Germany as a comedian and TV presenter — Andreas Dresen’s “Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush” just about gets away with it. But that’s as far as its bravery goes. Having expended all its creative energy on that one tonal dice-roll, the film proceeds by the numbers, with the messy, provocative real-life miscarriage of justice it chronicles tamed to march to the merry beat of the inspirational true-story genre.
The action begins one October morning in 2001, in the bustling Bremen household of the Turkish-immigrant Kurnaz family. Brassy matriarch Rabiye (Kaptan) — forever cheerfully cooking, cleaning and washing up for her brood — goes to call her eldest son Murat (Abdullah Emre Öztürk) down for breakfast and discovers he is not only not home, but en route to Pakistan. Murat, anxious to reaffirm his faith prior to his imminent arranged marriage to Fadime (Safak Sengul), wants to enroll in a center for Quran study there. But this being mere weeks after the 9/11 attacks, his movements are deemed suspicious. He is arrested, detained without trial and eventually sent to Guantanamo.
Initially, Rabiye only knows her son has disappeared, and becomes increasingly frantic in her attempts to find him. When she and her husband Mehmet (Nazmi Kirik), a worker at the local Mercedes factory, are finally informed of Murat’s fate, Rabiye sets about securing his release, little realizing this process will take years.
The film keeps us aware of the timeline with regular “Day 1,” “Day 5,” “Day 92” titles — markers that get dismayingly further apart — while Rabiye and Bernhard Docke (Alexander Scheer), the lawyer she basically bulldozes into taking Murat’s case, try to navigate the labyrinthine workings of post-9/11 international politics. Among the obstacles standing between her and her beloved son are stonewalling German officials, unhelpful Turkish representatives (despite being born and raised in Germany, Murat is technically a Turkish citizen) and, finally, the full Catch-22-style apparatus of the U.S. judicial system as it pertains to Guantanamo.
David-and-Goliath stories abound in Hollywood cinema, so much so there’s even a subgenre featuring indomitable women, often mothers, tenaciously refusing to pipe down and accept the injustices of the status quo. As with the most celebrated exemplars, like “Erin Brockovich,” “The Blind Side” and “Philomena,” “Rabiye” mostly exists as a showcase for its leading lady, and Dresen’s film duly brought Kaptan an acting award at the Berlinale.
Arguably less well-deserved, however, is the film’s Best Screenplay win. Laila Stieler’s script is significantly sharper and richer for a local audience who can pick up on its subtler swipes, but non-German viewers are left with a broader, baggier movie, in which the filmmaking — in particular, the flat, overlit handheld camerawork — rarely rises above the level of an old-school TV movie.
Dresen, whose 2011 film “Stopped on Track” brought him the Cannes Un Certain Regard prize, made his name with punchy dramas marked by deeply authentic performances. Working in a whole different register here, the director feels noticeably less at home, most palpably so when literally not at home: The U.S.-set sections, when Rabiye and Docke take their fight to Washington D.C., are among the film’s most unconvincingly artificial. For example, Rabiye’s cause is taken up by a U.S. human rights organization headed by a “famous Hollywood star,” and Rabiye’s failure to recognize him is played for light laughs in a party scene. But when this star is revealed to be Tim Williams, an American actor known almost exclusively for his work in German TV and here cameoing as himself, non-German audiences are likely to be as nonplussed as Rabiye herself.
“Rabiye” is not without its funny moments, mostly stemming from Kaptan’s amiable way with fish-out-of-water comedy, and the gentle buddy dynamic that emerges as the stiff, serious Docke begins to warm to his outspoken, charismatic client. On the rare occasion when the film allows for a moment of introspection, Kaptan’s portrayal finds moving notes underneath all the gregariousness.
But the movie also runs the risk of trivializing the politics of the situation, in the name of humanizing innocent victims whose humanity should surely, by now, no longer be a point that needs making. It delivers ample warm-fuzzies in admiration for this genial, generous, larger-than-life character. But “Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush” also represents a frustratingly baby-steps contribution to a social justice conversation that is too important, and too intricate, to be boiled down to a mother’s-love-conquers-all bromide.