'Red Soil' ('Rouge'): Film Review

Red Soil
Les Films Velvet, Les Films du Fleuve
Thoughtful and well-performed, if a tad predictable.

Farid Bentoumi's Cannes-selected feature, about a young nurse exposing a local pollution scandal, screened at the Deauville American Film Festival.

A modest French cousin to Erin Brockovich and Todd Haynes’ recent Dark Waters, Red Soil (Rouge) once again pits a tireless underdog against the forces of corporate greed and looming environmental catastrophe. The hook this time is that the underdog, played by the talented Zita Hanrot (Fatima), is fighting too close to home, with her own father a longtime worker at the factory that’s been dangerously polluting their region.

The second feature from actor turned filmmaker Farid Bentoumi (Good Luck Algeria), this well-played if somewhat familiar drama works best when it gives Hanrot and co-star Sami Bouajila the chance to go tête-à-tête as they expose their characters’ generational divide in a place where jobs are scarce and both far-right and far-left factions are growing. (Sound familiar?) The writing and direction can be a bit boilerplate, encroaching on movie-of-the-week territory, but the subject is a worthy one that's handled with care. Inclusion in the Cannes 2020 selection should give Red Soil a boost in France and overseas.

The first time we see Nour (Hanrot), she’s panicking during a medical emergency at the hospital where she works as an ER nurse. Even if this professional mishap will be a life-changing moment for her, one thing is certain: Nour cares.

In fact, she cares so much that when she moves back in with her dad, Slimane (Bouajila), to run the infirmary at the chemical plant where he’s been laboring for 30 years, and then discovers a vast cover-up involving toxic waste dumping, cancer victims and a corrupt local government, you just know that Nour will not let it slip by.

She’s made aware of all this by Emma (Céline Sallette), a freelance investigative reporter who conveniently slips into the story just as Nour starts her new job, revealing her findings about the factory during a local Green party meeting. Slimane is in attendance as well, and given all he’s done to protect his job and those of his fellow workers amid years of toil, he’s unwilling to face the truth about his company.

Thus begins a father-daughter confrontation that will form the crux of Red Soil, with Nour joining Emma to save their community by trying to expose the pollution destroying it, and Slimane trying to save his factory from closing, which could destroy their community as well. And while it’s clear that Nour is much more forward-thinking than her dad, you cannot really blame Slimane for trying to preserve things in the short term.

Bentoumi, who directed theater prior to making films, coaxes strong performances out of his two leads — the best scenes are the ones when Nour faces up to Slimane, and vice-versa. Hanrot received the César for Most Promising Actress back in 2016 and proves she can carry a feature, giving Nour plenty of youthful energy and smarts, along with a shred of emotional baggage. Bouajila is one of France’s finest actors, skillful at playing middle-aged men marked by internal struggles (see the excellent and underrated Algeria-set drama The Blessed), and so he's a perfect fit for the highly embattled Slimane.

The film stumbles when Bentoumi forces things too much narrative-wise, as in a subplot involving Emma’s anarchist ex-boyfriend attacking the plant, or a whole convoluted setup that brings Nour back into the factory after she’s been fired. It feels implausible, especially the fact that Nour doesn’t bother to protect herself during an extremely dangerous mission whereas she’s been urging all the workers to do just that.

At such moments, you get the feeling that Bentoumi knows where he wants his movie to go — toward a rather predictable if satisfying resolution — and then takes a few too many shortcuts to get there. Still, his characters are convincing, as is the small-town setting (somewhere in the south of France) where blue-collar workers are willing to sacrifice their health for a job that, in any case, could eventually move overseas.

A telling scene near the end of Red Soil sums up that predicament: The factory staff is invited to a seminar during which their boss (Olivier Gourmet, perfect as a sinister corporate climber) introduces the CEO of the massive conglomerate that controls them — a man Skyping in from somewhere in Asia. He announces that he's going to invest more money in their factory (this is before the pollution scandal breaks), but you can tell that for him, these people are just tiny pixels on a screen. He’s saved their livelihoods for now, but it’s clear that with only a few clicks, he could make them all go away.

Production companies: Les Films Velvet, Les Films du Fleuve 
Cast: Zita Hanrot, Sami Bouajila, Céline Sallette, Olivier Gourmet, Henri-Noël Tabary, Alka Balbir 
Director: Farid Bentoumi
Screenwriter: Farid Bentoumi, in collaboration with Samuel Doux
Producer: Frédéric Jouve
Director of photography: George Lechaptois
Production designer: David Favire
Costume designer: Caroline Spieth
Editors: Géraldine Mangenot, Damien Keyeux
Casting director: Antoine Carrard
Venue: Deauville American Film Festival
Sales: WTFilms 

In French
88 minutes