Featuring: Viggo Mortensen, Reda Kateb
Director: David Oelhoffen
Writer: David Oelhoffen, Antoine Lacomblez (collaboration), adapted from Albert Camus’ short story L’Hôte (The Guest)
Movie website: www.palacefilms.com.au/farfrommen/
Australian release date: Thu 30 July
Verdict: Terrific high-stakes cinema with a classic feel, featuring rivetting lead performances from Viggo Mortensen and Reda Kateb.
This brooding slow-burner has the feel of classic cinema about it. Director David Oelhoffen plays straight stylistically – he’s aiming for bare bones realism and achieves it. Yet beneath the deceptively simple surface, Big Questions of morality swirl, answers lurking like the Minotaur behind twin doors. Life or death? The stakes don’t get any higher than that. And of course, this sets up the movie with the sort of dramatic tension and conflict that is a driving force of good cinema, but too often lacking in contemporary product steered by directors aiming for “originality” and sophistication of form.
By contrast, Oelhoffen works in the service of the piece, not himself. He prioritises the dramatic fundamentals: a flawlessly credible narrative; expert characterisation (fully exploited by the two leads, who are rivetting); seamless exposition through spare, drumskin-tight dialogue somewhat reminiscent of Hemingway; stunning cinematography that draws on the stark beauty and atmospheric spectacle of the inhospitable Algerian mountain backdrop. And he does so without overtly imposing his directorial mark through cleverdick flourishes. This makes for a simplicity of form entirely appropriate to the mid-50s setting in rural war-torn Algeria, and keeps the spotlight on the developing relationship between the two main characters, Daru (Viggo Mortensen), a misfit teacher in a remote village, and Mohamed (Reda Kateb), an Arab villager accused of murder he must escort to a police station in a regional town several days hard trek away across the Atlas Mountains.
The film moves slowly by necessity as Daru and Mohamed struggle on by foot across the stony God-forsaken mountains, battling harsh winter conditions and hostile human elements along the way (there are some explosive action sequences, most notably a heart-poundingly tense and highly realistic firefight between rag-tag revolutionaries and some brutal French soldiers).
The vast, ancient, unforgiving Algerian terrain lends an epic quality to the work while also paring back the characters, leaving them exposed with nowhere to hide. In the theatre of the elemental, truth must surface. And it does, layer by layer, as the two lead characters discover what lies at their cores, culminating in a moral crisis and a life-or-death decision at a set of crossroads – literally and metaphorically – at the moving and most dramatic climax of the film.
At the heart of moral dilemma is honour, which contemporary filmmakers typically dilute with a serve of irony – refreshingly absent here. This is gutsy, all-hands-on-the-table stuff.
Simplicity of form, beautifully realised, underwritten with complex thought, fully resolved. That’s what I mean by classic feel. And I say hurray.
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