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After tackling Southeast Asian tigers, Tibetan monks and Neolithic tribesmen, globetrotting director Jean-Jacques Annaud sets his sights on the Middle East and the rise of the modern oil industry with the historical epic, Black Gold. Yet despite a subject whose geopolitical repercussions are especially pertinent in light of both 9/11 and the Arab Spring, there is something all too old fashioned and benign about this glossy desert peplum, whose casting of (mostly) non-Arab stars – posing as Arabs – seems out of touch with current tastes. A decent lead turn by Tahar Rahim, and a few spectacular set-pieces, will help Gold reap moderate global returns for Warner Bros., who co-distributes with Studio 37 in France for a Nov. 23 release.
Set “somewhere in Arabia” (the film was actually shot in Tunisia and Qatar) presumably during the 1930s, Black Gold charts the expansion of oil mining in the region, revealing the nefarious effect it has on two rival sultans: the progressive profiteer, Nesib (Antonio Banderas), and the Muslim traditionalist, Amar (Mark Strong). Following years of tranquility resulting from a pact whereby Amar’s two sons – the studious Auda (Rahim) and the hotheaded Saleh (Akin Gazi) – are entrusted to Nesib as a sort of guarantee, the latter’s choice to team up with an American prospector (Corey Johnson) to dig wells in a neighboring territory sets off a series of skirmishes, tearing the otherwise peaceful tribes apart.
Caught between his forward-thinking foster father, and his prideful and skeptical biological father (“To be an Arab is to be a waiter at the banquet of the world,” remarks Amar), Auda is pushed to take the reigns of a small insurrection, making the transformation from an introverted bookworm to a crafty and courageous freedom fighter. Along the way, he tries to hold on to his marriage to Nesib’s beautiful daughter, Leyla (Freida Pinto), a character whose dramatic impact is severely reduced by the fact that she spends most of the movie confined to a desert boudoir.
Adapting from a 1957 novelby Swedish writer Hans Ruesch, Annaud and co-writers Menno Meyjes (The Color Purple) and Alain Godard (Enemy at the Gates) attempt to reveal the emotional and moral ripples caused by the introduction of good ol’ American capitalism within a world not quite ready for such a sweeping change. Yet following in the wake of recent oil flicks like Syriana and There Will Be Blood – whose attention to realism and period detail felt ripe for contemporary times – Annaud’s fairytale-ish approach to the material makes it hard to grasp the film’s contemporary relevance, turning what could have been a topical historical exposé into an often kitschy parade of horses, camels and colorful costumes.
The fact that Banderas has been cast here as an Arabian sheik doesn’t help matters much, and sophisticated audiences may have a hard time him seriously as the money-hungry, Westernized Nesib. Ditto for the Indian-born Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire), who plays a Middle Eastern for the second time since Julian Schnabel’s Miral, and offers up one of the movie’s more risible scenes when Leyla performs a very PG-rated striptease on her wedding night.
Although Rahim doesn’t exactly hail from the region, he’s convincing enough as the initially confused, and then firmly resolute, Prince Auda. Not unlike his portrayal of the prisoner-cum-crime lord in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, Rahim has a knack for playing characters who evolve from cowering boys into shrewd tough guys, and his story arc works better than any of the political metaphors Annaud may have been trying to dish out.
Shot in sun-drenched widescreen by Patrice Leconte regular Jean-Marie Dreujou, the film does provide a certain – albeit highly retro – epic charm, and the sweeping desert vistas, scores of camels, tanks and extras, feel like they belong to one of those Hollywood super-productions of the 50s or 60s. The fact that producer Tarak Ben Ammar is quoted in the press notes making reference to Lawrence of Arabia is telling as to why Black Gold ultimately feels at least half a century past its expiration date.
Opens: Nov. 23 (In France)
Production companies: Quinta Communications, in association with Prima TV, France 2 Cinema, Carthago Films, Doha Film Institute
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Antonio Banderas, Mark Strong, Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed, Liya Kebede, Corey Johnson, Akin Gazi
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Screenwriters: Jean-Jacques Annaud, Alain Godard, Menno Meyjes, based on the novel The Great Thirst by Hans Ruesch
Producer: Tarak Ben Ammar
Executive producer: Xavier Castano
Director of photography: Jean-Marie Dreujou
Production designer: Pierre Queffelean
Music: James Horner
Costume designer: Fabio Perrone
Editor: Herve Schneid
No rating, 130 minutes
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