Expanding the digital-age subgenre of films entirely told on computer screens from the personal (“Searching”) and the supernatural (“Unfriended”) into the geopolitical, “Profile” is a tense on-camera thriller based on a real-life case dealing with international terrorism.
In 2014, French journalist Anna Erelle, using a fake identity, established a pretend romantic relationship with an ISIS jihadist via Skype. The objective was to learn about their tactics to recruit and transport young European women into Syria. Her hazardous ordeal is documented in the book “In the Skin of a Jihadist.”
For its cinema transmutation, the online conceit of this high-stakes story is at once pertinent to how we regularly interact with others and, given the ongoing pandemic that’s led many to swear off video chats, also visually tedious. Watching a movie unfold in full on a screen feels less than enticing in 2021, yet in director Timur Bekmambetov’s defense, “Profile” had its festival premiere back in early 2018 before physical contact vanished.
Bekmambetov and his multiple co-writers don’t contextualize what — aside from needing to pay her rent — motivates undercover British journalist Amy (Valene Kane, “Rogue One”) to pursue this investigation. By posing as a prospective Western bride for an Islamic State gunman she is putting herself at risk but, without knowledge of her previous work or her moral convictions, one can’t comprehend her thought process nor the loopholes within it.
A desktop in disarray introduces Amy’s demanding boss Vick (Christine Adams, “Black Lightning”), Amy’s boyfriend and a close personal friend, as she creates an alter ego on Facebook: Melody Nelson. With the intention of luring in an extremist, Amy presents Melody as a recent convert to Islam, engages other users with radical views, wears a hijab and fabricates a plausible backstory. Like clockwork, ISIS top dog Abu Bilel Al-Britani (Shazad Latif, “Star Trek: Discovery”) launches a courtship.
Kane’s back and forth between the submissive behaviors Melody must exude in front of Bilel and the anxiety that plagues Amy when she is out of character make for an intriguing emotional labyrinth. When the character’s pragmatism loses ground to her seeming connection with the man on the other side, in spite of her knowledge of his murderous crimes, the relationship momentarily turns ambiguous.
We are no longer certain of whether Amy’s concern for him is merely professional or if she’s fallen for his manipulation. She is losing touch with her real life in London.
Sold on the naturalness of the two main performances and the manufacturing of the interface with all its small but pointed details, “Profile” is an impressive marriage between the human element and the virtual vehicle through which this deceitful bond develops. The structure of the film necessitates not only intangible production design but also that all the music we hear is diegetic and that we receive information on the screen through text messages, web searches, Facebook posts, and chats.
These elements convey the scatterbrained nature of our online behavior, replying to one message as we research something while at the same time singing along to a tune. Ultimately, though, accessing the layers through so much onscreen text coming from multiple directions, in order to piece together a semblance of who Amy is and who she becomes as Melody, is rather exhausting.
All of Amy’s backgrounds come from her apartment or a hotel room, but for Bilel’s scenes, Bekmambetov and his team had the larger task of showing him in combat or in ravaged cities. Scaling down his usual scope — Bekmambetov, a Russian-Kazakh filmmaker is known for action-heavy productions such as “Night Watch” or the 2016 remake of “Ben-Hur” — “Profile” signifies a new focus on acting, as that’s the most relevant asset here. The believable, sometimes erratic nuances in the exchanges, which transcend the movie’s inert mechanics, demonstrate the director’s aptitude to zero in on the quieter parts.
As Bilel, Latif amps up a fascinating dose of hypermasculinity mixed with cat-loving vulnerability, which comes off as strangely relatable. That’s most certainly the point. His advances, flirtatious but never less than demanding, exhibit how, at least in conversation, he’s willing to bend the rules of the strict interpretation of religion he preaches.
Through him, the screenplay also plants the idea that the racism experienced by people of Middle Eastern heritage in Europe is a factor in them joining those groups. Although it seems very on-the-nose and lacking intellectual depth, that notion is refuted with the inclusion of Lou (Amir Rahimzadeh), Amy’s Syrian IT guy, who condemns ISIS and acts as counterpoint for the white woman’s prejudices.
Still, as much as Bekmambetov is able to maintain a sense of impending doom, the revelations are predictable, even if the means through which we learn them are clever. What’s least successful about “Profile” is how the multi-faceted issues at its center are ultimately reduced to the journalist’s bravery to stand up to fear. Within its format, there’s no real examination of the social environment that drives young girls to reach out to such a dark underworld in the first place.
A scene late in Melody and Bilel’s fraudulent love affair exposes Amy’s need for understanding that apparently no one in her flesh-and-blood life provides; that’s the only time she seems to be in the shoes of those who have fallen in this trap before. The rest is mostly concerned with the two-way web of lies weaving between potential prey and real predator.
“Profile” opens in US theaters May 14.