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Viggo Mortensen adds Arabic and French to the languages he’s spoken on screen in Far From Men (Loin des hommes), French director David Oelhoffen’s ambitious but uneven attempt to turn the Albert Camus short story The Guest, set in 1954 Algeria, into a Western. The film offers splendid widescreen vistas of the Atlas Mountains and an impressive, quite minimalistic score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. But the original’s existentialist undertow is mostly lost in shallow characterizations and scenes that perfunctorily tip their hat to genre tropes rather than illuminating the characters of either Mortensen’s schoolteacher or his charge, a local man who killed his cousin. Beyond Francophone territories, this could get some traction based on the star’s name and the film’s good looks.
One can see what first attracted Oelhoffen in Camus’s short story The Guest (the original French title means both “the guest” and “the host,” so it could refer to either protagonist). Like in his debut, In Your Wake, which premiered in the 2007 Cannes Critics’ Week, the story deals with a relationship between two individuals who are theoretically not equals but whose growing rapport causes the power balance to shift.
In Far From Men, the relationship revolves around an Algerian-born, Francophone schoolteacher of European descent, Daru (Mortensen), who is delivered a mostly Arabic-speaking murderer (Reda Kateb) he’s subsequently asked to escort to the town where he’ll be judged. On the surface, the relation between the two seems clear, especially because the criminal seems to have already confessed and Daru is part of the establishment who’s asking for his help. But when, during the first night together, the local sneaks out of the room, Daru lets him get away, only to see him return to his bed not much later with a fever.
Since he didn’t try to keep his prisoner from escaping, this should be the first clear sign of Daru’s questioning of his duties and loyalties. But instead, Daru, like a schoolteacher who doesn’t question the ability to learn from mistakes or the innate humanity of his pupils, simply looks after the sick murderer, who turns out to be called Mohamed. The good Samaritan goes on to accompany and protect Mohamed during their trip, which takes them across the inhospitable mountains by foot so the killer’s cousins, who’ll be looking for him, can’t extract revenge on them and Mohamed can arrive alive and well at the police station where he’ll be sentenced to a certain death (another interesting paradox the film doesn’t exploit, since Daru’s good character never seems in doubt).
Thus, Oelhoffen’s Daru is an admirable, morally upright man practically from the start, which robs him of any interesting flaws or opportunities to grow. And the fate of this goody two-shoes will be decided by forces around him on which he has practically no influence. At about the half-way mark, the reasoning behind Mohamed’s criminal act and subsequent behavior is also revealed — something left more ambiguous in the original text — and the duo then clearly understands what each man has to do. The only question thus becomes whether they’ll arrive at their destination alive, as the mountains are crawling with both freedom fighters and the French army fighting them.
Their time at high altitudes, greatly expanded from the original two-hour walk, sheds a little light on Algeria’s struggle for independence, which was just getting started in the mid-1950s. And the film occasionally resonates with contemporary relevance, such as when it suggests it is impossible not to be forced to choose sides even if one would prefer to stay neutral — just look at the recent Israel-Gaza situation — or when Daru reprimands a French soldier for shooting two Algerians who’d surrendered, which is a war crime, and the French army’s reasoning turns out to be that the people they are fighting are not soldiers but “terrorists,” so the rules of warfare don’t apply.
But the inner lives of neither Daru nor Mohamed are particularly well-illuminated, which would seem problematic for a film that’s adapting a work of existentialist fiction filled with ambiguity. Instead, Oelhoffen seems content to rely on the conventions of the Western genre in the most basic sense of the term (one wonders what someone like Clint Eastwood at his most ambiguous, circa Unforgiven, could have done with this material). Instead of complex personalities and dilemmas, we mostly get clichés, which becomes especially grating in a terrible sequence of events that ends at a brothel (not in Camus’s text) and that tries to reunite Western tropes and humor.
Mortensen has a great face for this sort of rugged film with silent stretches, though his French sounds both a little wobbly and much too clearly articulated even for a teacher (Oelhoffen tries to explain this away by revealing that Daru’s from a family originally from Andalusia, Spain). Kateb, most famous for his role as the extensively tortured prisoner in Zero Dark Thirty, offers solid support, though like Mortensen there’s only so much he can do with a character that’s underwritten. Nicolas Giraud, the lead of the director’s first film, has a small supporting role.
The cinematography by Guillaume Deffontaines takes full advantage of the (Moroccan) mountain scenery, though it does little to amplify character psychology, as it does in the best Westerns. Cave and Ellis’ score, while not as good as their work for fellow recent Westerns The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is atmospheric and thankfully avoids including African instruments to give the music a local flavor. Costume designer Khadija Zeggai, however, makes some odd choices, with Daru’s getup more like something out of a well-ironed Uomo Vogue vintage feature than something a schoolteacher in a remote mountain village might have available.
Production companies: One World Films, Pathe Production, Perceval Pictures, Kaleo Films
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Reda Kateb, Nicolas Giraud
Writer-Director: David Oelhoffen, screenplay based on the short story The Guest by Albert Camus
Producers: Marc Du Pontavice, Matthew Gledhill
Co-producers: Viggo Mortensen, Olivier Charvet, Florian Genetet-Morel
Director of photography: Guillaume Deffontaines
Production designer: Stephane Taillasson
Costume designer: Khadija Zeggai
Editor: Juliette Welfling
Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Sales: Pathe International
No rating, 101 minutes
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