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The Issa Sisters Shine Bright As The Heroic Mardini Sisters

Feb 1, 2023

Home Movie Reviews The Swimmers Review: The Issa Sisters Shine Bright As The Heroic Mardini Sisters

The Swimmers is a triumph in many ways. It is beautiful, heartbreaking, and profoundly moving, with stellar leading performances from the Issa sisters

Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa in The Swimmers

Films based on true stories are not new. If anything, they are a staple of cinema. A core element that often tethers many of these stories is the collective celebration of the human spirit. Films like The Swimmers are so much more than just a celebration of their subjects — they often exist to illuminate certain realities that are often masked for various reasons. The lives of refugees have become so politicized that generalizations, misunderstandings, and lies shroud the individuals at the heart of the crisis. The Swimmers puts names to the faces of refugees and reminds audiences of the heart at the center — the people who do what they can to survive, not just for themselves but for the people who matter the most to them.
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The Swimmers tells the story of the Mardini sisters, Yusra (Nathalie Issa) and Sara (Manal Issa) Mardini. The two have their whole futures ahead of them as swim champions in Syria, with Yusra dreaming of representing her country at the Olympics. All is well, even with the older Sara rebelling against her father’s desire to see her swim competitively, too. That is, until war tears their dreams and futures apart. Desperate for a chance at a life free from war and uncertainty, the sisters embark on the perilous journey millions of refugees undertake for the chance at a better life. While it can be difficult to stay on the path towards whatever one dreams of becoming, the Mardini sisters, with so many odds against them, rise to victory.

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Manal Issa and Nathalie Issa in The Swimmers

Sally El Hosaini’s directing is vibrant and engaging. The scale and scope of the story are deeply felt, with the emotions of the Mardini sisters front and center. El Hosaini latches onto the sister’s unimaginable ordeal and gets the audience deeply attached to them within the first five minutes of the film. El Hosaini, who also co-wrote the scrip with Jack Thorne, spends time on the Mardini’s hopes, dreams, joys, and love for their family and home. Without getting lost in the tragedy of their situation, the director firmly imbues the film with hope, even when difficult things unfold in the sisters’ lives. The general sense of hope in the face of pain is reflected in the ensemble performances, Christopher Ross’ cinematography, and Steven Price’s passionate music. Every aspect of this film is made to make one feel, to resonate with these young women, to feel the pain of losing their homes, friends, and family. Refugees have lost so much more than just their homes; there are more profound implications, and El Hosaini’s script and directing get to the heart of that without ever feeling exploitative.

If the world were just, Manal Issa would be a bona fide star after her debut in Danielle Arbid’s Parisienne. She shines with effortless charisma and is adept at capturing the fleeting moments of Sara’s sadness and despair despite her jovial outward appearance. However, Manal is not the star of The Swimmers, that would be her real-life sister Nathalie Issa. Nathalie is darling, with a quiet confidence that carries her through a subtle leading performance. Yusra believes she can accomplish whatever she wants, and Nathalie Issa’s calm and assured performance beautifully conveys that hopeful outlook. One can sometimes sense Issa’s unease with carrying such a heavy story, but she is as graceful as she is talented. There is a bright future ahead for both sisters.

This story has everything one could hope to find in a feel-good story based on real life. There is a happy ending of sorts, but the journey does offer some heart-wrenching moments. There are some hiccups that come to the forefront in the third act, however, as Yusra’s resentment of being labeled a refugee conflict with her determination to represent Syria in the Olympics. The sisters’ feelings about their ordeal aren’t fully explored. How Yusra even gets to the Olympics seems a bit rushed, and Sara’s experiences are hardly delved into during this crucial time in both their lives. Sara makes a life decision that seems out of the blue, but with some restructuring and pacing adjustments, her story could have paired nicely with Yusra’s.

The triumphant story of Yusra making it to the Olympics is the flashier story and the hook for the whole project, so it is understandable this plot is showcased more than the more nuanced, personal journey Sara undertakes. The other thing that keeps this film from being its most impactful is what is not captured on screen, which is the life the Mardini sisters are living now, which is quickly presented in the end credits. So much has happened between the time the sisters landed in Germany and Yusra competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Although their journey is as dramatic as it can be — with their plight as harrowing as any other refugee story, and their success as moving as it should be — there is much more to include in a two-hour plus retelling of their lives. In short, this movie is five years too early.

All that said, The Swimmers is a triumph in many ways. It is beautiful, heartbreaking, and, most importantly, profoundly moving. With such stellar leading performances from the Issa sisters, the Mardini sisters’ story will leave a mark on many people’s lives. This critic encourages viewers to follow the sisters’ journey after the credits roll, as there is so much these young women will accomplish.

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The Swimmers premiered on Netflix on Wednesday, November 23. It is 134 minutes long and rated PG-13 for thematic material, some violence including sexual assault, and language.

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