2014; adapted and directed by David Oelhoffen; 101 mins
First of the fest. Before I get started, I should point out that I did intend to see Yuriy Bykov’s The Fool and J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year but missed them, not realising they were very early on in the festival (as if I hadn’t scrutinised the catalogue enough like a scrabbling rat of foreign, niche film nerdism). This one was a one of the original ten that I aimed to see by hook or by crook. Dunno why, because I’d only read one review of it but I think the draw was twofold – seeing Viggo Mortensen do a Forrin film in Forrin and having seen a couple of films now about Algeria during the war of independence (definitely see The Battle of Algiers). You’d be surprised how many films there are on the subject; bloody good ones too! That is a quote from me – anyone writes a book about the subject – you can have that! I am such a hypocrite. As it goes, it was a bloody excellent piece of work AND it was set in Algeria during the war of independence so that tied up quite nicely. Based on a short story by Albert Camus (never read any of his stuff so I won’t pretend like I have), it charts the story of a French/Spanish teacher, Daru (Viggo Mortensen), living in the Algerian desert. He gets lumbered with the responsibility of escorting a prisoner, Mohamed (not stretching the imagination there are we fellas?), played by Reda Kateb, to face trial for murder. In the way of these things, suspicion and antipathy gives way to understanding and mutual respect. So far, so Western-transposed-to-a-scary-Forrin-landscape-yet-similarly-unforgiving-milieu-and-beset-by-the-same-human-foibles-because-we-are-all-one. However, there is a subtle difference in the central relationship. Whereas so many movies would’ve had Daru as the bigoted, anti-Muslim European who has the most massive personal political u-turn in a matter of days, this film gives us a character who is a second-generation colonial Frenchman who has lived in Algeria his entire life. He is already sympathetic to the Algerian cause and only knows France as an imperial powerhouse, fronted by callous or assimilated soldiers. Mohamed, as opposed to so many screen depictions of Islamic peoples, is neither a fanatic nor a very, very serious follower. To begin with he cuts a rather pathetic figure but as the film unfolds he reveals himself to be a man who cares deeply about his land and his people but is not necessarily the man’s man his culture expects him to be. If anyone turns out to be the victim here, it is Daru. He is caught in a time and place beyond his handling. To the Algerians, he is a personal friend but must at this time be seen as political enemy. To the French, he is a man who should be grateful for all their good work lest he be seen as a traitor. His life and all he knows is about to go through a change that will see him forced towards an uncertain future. The film, in it’s own way, flags up the side effects of colonialism. Daru, as a second generation colonial immigrant knows nothing outside of Algeria and is happy there. Nevertheless, the exploitation and oppression perpetrated by his nominal countrymen means that his Algerian friends are forced to pick sides and he could get killed in the crossfire of something bigger than personal relationships. In the end, Daru does the right thing despite his love for that land and that is what really makes this a fantastic piece of grown-up cinema. Films that are spare in style can be frustrating when you realise that the filmmaker compliments the visuals by having fuck all to say. Here, writer/director David Oelhoffen (to whose work I am new) gives us a beautiful but empty shots that really sit well on the big screen and also give us space to find the story underneath the action. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ music is typically brilliant but thankfully, Oelhoffen uses it sparingly. He doesn’t ladle on the music to give us cues all the time.. . or maybe it was there more than I thought it was but I didn’t notice. Either way, it speaks of a filmmaker who is in charge of his material and isn’t letting stylistic tics or traditions overwhelm the story. A good start to the festival, it can only go downhill (or uphill, it’s not the greatest film I’ve ever seen. Let’s not go mad).