Far From Men takes the concept of a slow burn to a whole new level; light on dialogue, and with an emphasis on character over plot, this French drama is far from easy watching on a Sunday afternoon.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Review by Cherie Wheeler
As rising tensions between Algerian nationals and French soldiers reach boiling point in the mid-1950s, heralding the outbreak of the Algerian War of Independence, reclusive, colonialist schoolteacher Daru (Viggo Mortensen) finds himself burdened with the task of escorting accused criminal Mohamed (Reda Kateb) to the nearby town of Tinguit to await his trial and probable execution.
Having been born and raised in a Western country, my knowledge of the Algerian War is very limited – at best – and so I found the cultural context in which Far From Men, or Loins Des Hommes, is set to be highly insightful, and at times fascinating. While there has been previous coverage of this rather controversial, historical event on the silver screen (The Battle of Algiers, Outside the Law), never before has the topic been broached with such a blatant lack of adherence to one ideology or the other.
Relatively green, French writer/director David Oelhoffen manages to immerse the characters in this harsh and volatile world without ever allowing the story to be fully consumed by the subject of war; the focus ever remains on the relationship between Daru and Mohamed, and their increasingly challenging journey to Tinguit. Perhaps, in part, this can be owed to the source material, being the short story The Guest by renowned French writer Albert Camus, but as you would expect, Oelhoffen has significantly expanded the original storyline in order to mould it into the feature film format.
There are pitfalls in maintaining such a localised perspective, however, as it results in much of the film being expressed in lengthy, wide shots of Daru and Mohamed trudging through the desolate landscape. Even during moments of action involving the Algerian rebels and French soldiers, the film feels lifeless and lethargic, and fails to connect on an emotional level, which is a conundrum considering the potential power of the subject matter.
Whilst I appreciated Oelhoffen’s stripped back, matter-of-fact style of storytelling, at times his direction was a little too extreme, making for brutal viewing. He forces the audience to endure dreary scene after scene, and constantly leaves you to wonder – where is this going, and how can this possibly end in a satisfying way? Fortunately, he does allow a slight reprieve through the inclusion of snippets of humour that are beautifully executed by the two leading men.
At first glance the King of Gondor may seem an odd fit for a film spoken entirely in French, Arabic and Spanish, but when you consider Mortensen’s upbringing, his casting is right on the money. Having grown up in Argentina to a Danish father, then later attending high school on the Canadian border, Mortensen has been exposed to multiple languages in his lifetime, and has previously acted in Danish as well as Spanish language films.
A vast improvement from his role in last year’s The Two Faces of January, Mortensen delivers a quiet, nuanced performance as the grim-faced, yet compassionate Daru, and Kateb complements Mortensen’s subtly with his own brand of understated emotion. Layer by layer Kateb’s character gradually unravels on screen to reveal the truth behind his crimes, as well as his inexplicable obsession with reaching Tinguit, however, his stiff and ungainly physicality, coupled with his seeming nonchalance toward each situation the two men face makes empathising with Mohamed a trying task; even Daru accuses him of being spineless on multiple occasions. At 37 Kateb is also a little too old for the role; a far more fresh-faced actor would have allowed greater significance to the exploration of the theme of wasted life.
Although difficult to stomach at times, Far From Men is a well-crafted piece of cinema that in some ways is a refreshing departure from the usual formulaic and overly glamourised products of Hollywood.
Far From Men is available in Australian cinemas from Thursday July 30
Images courtesy of Palace Films