Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 13th, 2021
Profile (Timur Bekmambetov, 2018) 1 out of 4 stars.
Based on a true story (Anna Erelle’s 2014 In the Skin of a Jihadist) though it may be, Timur Bekmambetov’s Profile too often feels like an exercise in make-believe. This does not arise from the director’s pioneering work in the Screenlife format he created (showcased in the 2018 Searching), which places the action within an on-screen computer frame, but rather from the barely sketched characters who while away the 105-minute runtime without much development. Yes, lead protagonist Amy (Valene Kane, Sonja: The White Swan) may start out an ostensibly objective journalist and turn into a lovesick neurotic, but at all times she remains a superficial cypher. The same goes for her antagonist/romantic interest, ISIS recruiter Bilel (Shazad Latif, CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery): he has one basic arc, despite flailing attempts to give him a back story. At least the aesthetics of the filmmaking technique prove occasionally engaging.
When first we meet Amy, she is a mess, about to be evicted for lack of rent, even as she in the middle of plans to (maybe?) move in with her boyfriend. With her editor breathing down her neck for a story about how ISIS is recruiting disaffected European women to join their cause, Amy creates a fake online profile to track down the men responsible for turning wayward youth into terrorists. Leaving aside the reductive way the movie treats its Arab characters, the problems in the narrative start right away with Amy’s methods. Miraculously, right after setting up a nearly blank Facebook page and liking a few videos and posts from women similar to the one she is claiming to be, she is contacted by Bilel, himself. Really? It’s 2014, not that long ago, and it seems unlikely that anyone would be fooled by her obvious tactics. And yet, before long, she and Bilel are not just in contact, but Skyping.
That proves a problem for the thirtysomething (or so) Amy, for she is pretending to be 17 (or so). Throw on a makeshift hijab and turn one’s gaze demurely down, and no problem! To be fair, as the drama eventually plays out, it’s quite possible that Bilel doesn’t care whether she is real or not; his goal is to seduce any woman he can find to the point of entry into Syria. After that, there’s no turning back. Which is where the film asks us to suspend disbelief even more: somehow, Amy begins to fall for Bilel, to the point of giving up everything to leave England not just for the story, but for love. At no point do I buy her or his conviction towards any of their supposed motives.
But what is of interest is how Bekmambetov (Ben-Hur) tells his tale. Since everything transpires on a screen meant to replicate Amy’s monitor, we often find ourselves watching a scene in motion only to discover that it is a recording; an alternate way to see it is that Bekmambetov conflates time so that we are never entirely certain of what has happened when and where we are now. Given the rather extreme limitations of the screenplay, maybe that’s for the best. The less we know, the more we can watch and perhaps appreciate that which (somewhat) works. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.