top of page
  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Dirty Difficult Dangerous // Film Review

“Iron, copper, batteries.”

The title Dirty Difficult Dangerous refers not to an action or choice, but to a person. Mehdia is an Ethiopian maid held in captive service by sponsors in Lebanon. She’s not a prisoner, technically, rather she is simply repaying a debt to the family that generously staked her plane ticket. Mehdia’s story makes for an unforgiving and brutal viewing experience, achieved in part through a blend of tight close ups which compare her apartment unfavourably to a prison cell seen early in the film, and flat wides which show her performing like a puppet for her masters.

But Dirty Difficult Dangerous has a second story, slowly taking hold over its world until there’s precious little of Mehdia left. This second story is one of triumph and escape, dipping into the realm of magical realism to open a discussion about Syrian soldiers. The film makes gestures into the process which sees men turned into machines of war, before asking whether their souls are beyond reclamation. It’s a lot of ground to cover, but in theory there’s no reason it shouldn’t work.

And yet, the story arc used to tell this story is such a jarring and outrageous left-field manoeuvre that it severs any possible ties to Mehnia’s more grounded plight. The film argues that the traumatised can be transformed into literal heroes, taking the burdens of postwar life and turning them into superpowers. And not just metaphorically, as the film’s final movements see our Syrian survivor crush steel with his bare hands and beat up dastardly villains with his fists of iron.

On paper, the film’s two-pronged attack on the question of human commodification is inspired, but frustratingly the film never quite succeeds at being both of these things at once. The first half leans hard into Mehnia’s struggle, and the ending towards the soldiering crisis, but the act between them stumbles through a sequence of awkward, if thoughtful vignettes that would thrive as short films, but fail at bridging the gap here. A lengthy sequence involving a documentary team played for suckers by our leads stands out as the sort of metatextual wink that comes up a lot at film festivals, but never tends to add much other than a cheap laugh.

When kept separate, the horrors of hostage sponsorship and a soldier’s fight for his soul both make for gripping tales, but once combined, Dirty Difficult Dangerous' messaging becomes confused. The film's cute ending is at odds with its more cynical through line, rather than feeling like a natural progression into hope. That said, there is plenty to like here, from the bruised but unwavering layers from its lead performers to the gorgeous colouring that almost had me fooled into thinking I was watching an old Technicolour picture. It may not always do its core themes full justice, but this is a movie oozing with humanity, which in this case matters a whole lot more than any technical points. It's as good a way as any to kick off a festival known for its prestigious oddities.

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival 2022.


bottom of page