Thursday, 19 March 2015

Far From Men (2015) - Movie Review

In the world of film criticism, or at least how I perceive it, there are very few things that scream pretension as loudly to me as the phrase "French Film Festival". Sure, it may just be the still-lingering stereotype of what film snobs prefer to watch that I find myself clinging to, but there’s also the fact that I have little to no patience for pretence as my hatred for Terrence Malick and the Annie remake will show. However, there are always exceptions to arbitrarily written rules and I found myself going to a film that was screening for a French Film Festival in my area (Incidently, in the same cinema where I’ve gone to five interactive screenings of The Room). This is because I saw that Nick Cave did the soundtrack for it alongside Bad Seeds bandmate Warren Ellis. So, out of love for not only the man’s music but also 20,000 Days On Earth, I decided to give it a go.

The plot: In 1950’s French-occupied Algeria, school teacher Daru (Viggo Mortensen) is entrusted with an Arab prisoner named Mohamed (Reda Kateb) who is to be sentenced to death. Reluctantly, Daru agrees to take custody of Mohamed and escort him to Tinguit where his sentence will be carried out. As the two make their way across the desert and learn more about each other, they both find themselves trying to escape their respective pasts.

One of the main reasons I try to avoid subbed foreign films as best I can is, to be completely honest, I’m not confident about reading people’s emotions when they’re speaking a language I do understand, let alone one that I don’t. However, even with that barrier in mind, Viggo and Reda both do great jobs here. Viggo seems to be doing his best Man With No Name impression, but that’s not to say that it is a full-blown Eastwood impersonation though; it’s more than he portrays the same kind of strong and silent type that is a staple of many great Westerns, even those outside of the U.S. Reda, initially, also lets his actions speak for him but with him that’s more out of general meekness than strength. As more of his character is revealed, he loosens up accordingly and helps make his arc more than just the writing at work. Together, Viggo and Reda have great on-screen chemistry, making for a really good buddy duo that effortlessly gets through the script’s more definitively French moments. I mean, I doubt that the conversations about virginity like those seen here would occur in a film from any other region, but at the same time it’s in no way jarring; given how bleak the rest of the film is, they serve to break up the otherwise rather harrowing backdrop.

This film is adapted from the short story 'The Guest' by French writer and philosopher Albert Camus, and while writer-director David Oelhoffen may have created a more optimistic interpretation of the original text, relatively speaking, this still feels true to Camus’ work at its core. In his essay The Myth Of Sisyphus, he posed the theory that the only really serious philosophical question is that of suicide and if life is worth living; all other philosophical questions stem from that. Now, as much as Camus denied being labelled an Existentialist all his life, considering a question of whether or not to intentionally end one’s own mortal existence to be the starting point of philosophy is a very existential way of thinking and something that is echoed in this film’s writing.


Both of the main characters struggle with the idea of ending their own lives, although this is metaphorical for the most part aside from the main plot point of Mohamed walking to his own execution. Daru, a former member in the French military, is confronted by his former brothers-in-arms fighting on either side of the Algerian Revolution and he just wants to avoid fighting altogether, preferring to take the route of teaching Algerian children to read and speak French so that they can at least survive in the country as it stands. Mohamed’s reason behind his imprisonment and sentence is brought on by his cultural traditions, starting with an act of murder just to save his own life evolving into a cycle that threatens not only him but the rest of his family as well, with even some of his family trying to kill him no less. This idea of choices and trying to defy one’s past, as shown by the backstories of our two main characters, is beautifully constructed as the writing around them complement and contrast each other superbly, aided greatly by the already-mentioned rapport the two actors clearly had with each other.

So, with writing that’s this good, it may come as a shock to learn that I really can’t get behind this film as a whole and a pretty big part of that has to do with the soundtrack, the main impetus for me to see this film in the first place. Not to say that the soundtrack itself is bad; far from it, Cave and Ellis maintain the level of quality that I expect from them with a very stripped-down score with a very eerie and unsettling serenity to it. However, as the film pressed on, I began to notice something: There wasn’t a whole lot of music being used here; for the most part, the film abandons non-diegetic sound altogether. The reasoning behind this makes sense, as the lack of noise does help build the vacuous atmosphere of the film, but oddly enough the score manages to convey that empty hopeless feeling even better than the silence does. To make things worse is the simple fact that there are a lot of scenes here of just Daru and Mohamed walking through the desert, with no sound other than the crunching of the rocks beneath their feet.

Before too long, these scenes become very monotonous and start reminding me of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, an astoundingly bad black hole of a movie that is literally little more than Matt Damon and Casey Affleck walking through a desert for two hours. There is a lot more going on plot-wise this time around, so it isn’t nearly as banal, but that doesn’t change the fact that these scenes eventually stop building an appropriate atmosphere and instead start dragging the pace of the film down around them. These scenes could have been far more watchable if they had more of a backing score to them. However, to be fair, there is one scene where the slow pace and long shots work immensely in the film’s favour: When Mohamed and Daru reach a fork in the road, one leading to Tinguit and the other leading to the mountains, there is a very long unbroken shot of Mohamed just looking at the paths ahead of him with Daru looking at him from the distance. This is the scene that I would isolate as where the use of cinematic language reaches its peak in terms of efficacy, as this is a pretty damn intense moment despite what little we actually see.

All in all, this is undoubtedly one of the best written films I’ve seen in a while, with great acting and a really moving soundtrack to accompany the script. However, the soundtrack isn’t used nearly enough to be as effective as it could be, making me question why Cave and Ellis were attached to this film in the first place, and the pace is way too slow to maintain its good points. Really, it only has reason to be watched within a film studies class and not anywhere else.

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