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MOVIE REVIEW

Film follows a suicide bomber, and every detail has meaning

Luisa Williams plays an unnamed American woman who plans to blow herself up in Times Square. (benoit debie/ifc first take)

"Day Night Day Night ," an astonishing movie from Julia Loktev , begins in a state of heightened ambiguity. The camera trails behind a young American woman (Luisa Williams ), who is picked up by a stranger at a bus station somewhere. They ride in silence and have a meal in silence, too. She's deposited at a hotel, where she has a bath, eats a spring roll, and dozes off. Later a group of masked men in knit hats and jumpsuits arrives to handcuff and blindfold her.

Through it all, she manages a gracious bearing. In fact, her manner is delicate. The sweet softness in her voice creates a nice contrast with the deep, sugarless intonations of the men who sit with her, bring her clothes and pizza, and put a rifle in her hands before recording her with a video camera. When she asks for a Kleenex to dab her nose (it's too shiny), there's still time to think "Day Night Day Night " is a paramilitary comedy.

Indeed, waiting for the action to crystallize into meaning is like anticipating the development of a Polaroid , which is to say that, in so many ways, "Day Night Day Night " is old-fashioned. Those hotel scenes last for more than half an hour, and as they unfold, you realize, with intense gratitude, that Loktev is a shower not a teller. Only gradually does her movie confirm our worry that this woman (we never do get her name) plans to blow herself up in New York City, which in the film's second half she heads into Times Square to do.

The most obvious question -- why? -- ultimately becomes the film's least important one. The bomber has a face of many ethnic and racial possibilities, which alters the movie's politics: Her organization's agenda is non denominational in a way that makes her determination to carry it out all the more chilling.

Loktev , a 37-year-old Russian-born Brooklynite (her other feature is "Moment of Impact ," a moving 1998 documentary about her incapacitated father), told Salon.com recently that she was partially inspired to make the film after hearing about a Chechen woman who stopped for bananas before detonating her bomb. Her movie, she said, is "about the bananas, not the bomb." To that end, Loktev has her bomber snacking on everything from those spring rolls to a candy apple. As the film changes course and darkens, the initial whimsy of her eating becomes a kind of neurotic comfort.

This is Williams's first movie as an actor (she used to work at New York magazine ), and she has an unforgettable face, the way women in certain European art movies do. There's nothing conventional about it: Her dark, tired-seeming eyes recede into their sockets, her mouth and nose are almost beak-like, drawn into a sort of permanent frown. She evokes Sandra Bernhard, but you don't fear Williams the way Bernhard wants to be feared. And in the film's agonizing last 20 minutes, her severe and opaque countenance opens into a universe of transparent emotional distress.

Even the hotel scenes, with her falling asleep, waking up, eating, trying on clothes, could have been perfunctory stuff. But Williams emits a sort of radiance that tells you she's not going for a cipher, even though there are crucial things about this character we don't understand, such as how she got herself mixed up in any of this. Even that question becomes beside the point once it's clear that she's unwaveringly committed to her assignment. That devotion, of course, gives the second part of the film its suspense, and, when her faith is challenged, the film takes a powerful existential turn.

It would be easier to dismiss "Day Night" as a cheap stunt if it were out to capitalize on public fears and the current political climate. But Loktev asks another question: When you've been living for one cause, is it possible to begin living for something else?

Stirring sympathy for a terrorist makes "Day Night," in some ways, a shocking film. But rather than overtly exploiting politics, Loktev evokes the works of the great French director Robert Bresson. Like Bresson, her subject, ultimately, is religion -- how it can inspire devout action, but in certain crucial moments can't be explained at all. She captures the absolute power in that awe.

In its painstaking attention to visual detail, the movie also recalls the films of the Danish director Carl Dreyer , especially "The Passion of Joan of Arc." But Loktev meets these two masters halfway , then proceeds in the opposite direction, one that's unimaginably bleak. She makes a transcendental moment -- a miracle probably -- seem horrific and terrible but in the holiest of ways. Hell on earth never seemed lonelier than it does here.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

'Related'

Day Night Day Night

Written and directed by: Julia Loktev

Starring: Luisa Williams

At: Coolidge Corner

Running time: 94 minutes

Unrated

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