Letters from Baghdad review by Adrijan Arsovski - Cinema Paradiso
Letters from Baghdad is directed by Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum and tackles an incredible amount of information about the so-called “exotic” lands – or the Middle East to be precise – including today’s territories of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria as well. The period of interest depicted in the film is right from the end of the twentieth century until the end of World War I and beyond. Additionally, the story is beautifully, colorfully narrated by the very talented Tilda Swinton who gets the job of reading Gertrude Bell's letters addressed to her family back in England. It’s a love letter to anyone even slightly interested in history, the East, and the exotic nature of it all.
The film is an amalgamation of several important factors that define and justify what the Middle East was all about in the mind of the romantic soul: a beautiful desert pay-sage, slow-moving, disinterested camels, unusual and colorful bazaars, and Eastern people dressed in voluminous robes that protrude both their senses of style and re-define what fashion means. And if that wasn’t all, Letters from Baghdad is also obsessed with exotic dwellings, Islamic decorations, and magnificent ruins of old – all told through the grainy lens of old film footage which adds extra magnificence to the already deeply sun-drenched offering.
But, despite all of that, what’s Letters from Baghdad actually about? Granted, individuals without a deep understanding of the underlying history of Gertrude Bell's doings would probably find themselves lost and confused at times, and this is understandably so, since the film doesn’t slow down for the sake of pacing and gargantuan events unravel on the screen in a matter of seconds. Stripping all added drama, aesthetics, and improvisations, and we can safely deduce that Letters from Baghdad is a film about the imperialistic tendencies of certain states, the meddling of foreign powers in the identities of the first, and the supremacist powers that be in the overall Eastern culture.
Even taking the entirety of that aside, we can safely assert (again) that Letters from Baghdad is also a deeply personal story, one about the educated, charismatic, and highly influential British aristocrat Gertrude Bell, whose passion for the East drove her to accomplish some incredible things, and yet fail in others. She has worked with a dozen historical figures (Churchill, Percy Cox, T. E. Lawrence "of Arabia"), in order to establish King Feisal as the frontrunner of Iraqi rule. During the war, Britain vowed to only serve as an advisor to this government all in good will to overthrow the Ottoman rule at that time. During which, Gertrude experienced a deeply personal loss (as we find through the letters and snippets from the diaries) which seemed as if didn’t affected her at all, whereas in fact it left a long-lasting scar on her personal demeanor.
All things considered, Letters from Baghdad is a competently made film and a love letter to all things exotic in nature.