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Review: Far From Men

Heather Wallace

Two very different men thrown together by a world in turmoil are forced to flee across the Atlas Mountains. (IMDB)

It wouldn’t have surprised me if John Ford, the Hollywood impresario of classic Westerns, had been named in the credits of Loin Des Hommes (Far From Men).

This beautiful, soulful morality tale fits the model of those epic Westerns where justice, honour and identity are all that’s left in a harsh world. Except this isn’t Hollywood’s version of the Old West; it’s 1954 Algeria where Algerian nationals are challenging French colonial rule. It also stars Viggo Mortensen in one of his best performances to date, adding French and Arabic to the growing list of languages he has performed in.

Ever since his star making turn as the dispossessed king Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mortensen has risen to the challenge of moral ambiguities, playing characters either trying to escape their past (History of Violence), descending to murky depths to uphold justice (Eastern Promises) or trying to hold on to a diminishing humanity (The Road).

Here he is Daru, a teacher dedicated to his handful of pupils on the plateau of the Atlas Mountains, a representative of French rule but not part of the governing elite. His life is entirely bound up in his little school on the mountain: he conducts lessons with a calm authority, hands out grain to his young charges, plays soccer with them in the dust, and sleeps and eats in the school’s rudimentary rooms.

He lives a solitary life but one he seems at peace with. Things change when another French settler rides up to his door, armed and with an Algerian man (French-Algerian actor Reda Ketab) tied behind his horse. Daru, as a representative of French rule, is tasked with transporting the prisoner to the city to face trial for murder. He refuses, knowing the man will be executed. The prisoner, Mohamed, is strangely accepting of his fate and wants the journey to continue. Riders from his village arrive to reclaim him, not to help him escape but to kill him for his crime. Daru is forced into action he doesn’t want that sets them on the path through hostile terrain to the city. This trek sees them stumbling across both sides of the French-Algerian conflict where personal loyalties and assumptions are tested.

This is a stand out film, from the cinematography, to the score co-produced by our own Nick Cave, to the understated but powerful performances. Calling the landscape desolate simply doesn’t convey how harsh and arid it is. The film was shot near the Moroccan-Algerian border as well as the Atlas Mountains and comes across as uncompromisingly hostile. Yet we also see its beauty and serenity. I’m not saying the film is in any way a tourist promotion but it was a joy to see an area that we hear so little about here in Australia.

Viggo Mortensen has never shied away from uncomfortable conditions, when he filmed Lord of the Rings in New Zealand, he camped out in the open elements rather than stay in a hotel. Even so I’m sure the conditions must have tested him. There is a moment of quiet humour when Daru and Mohamed seek shelter from punishing rain in an abandoned house. Drenched and soaking they discover the hut they’ve found doesn’t have a roof and it’s raining just as hard inside. Daru makes his way to an abandoned fireplace and with rain pouring around him, mimes warming his hands before a flame.

It’s a wonderful moment and shows the growing camaraderie between them. They share secrets and a growing friendship on their arduous journey, with more in common than at first seems. Mohamed willingly faces execution to break the merry-go-round of retribution his young brothers will otherwise be drawn in to. Daru, a man who has served in the French military but who was born in Algeria and whose parents are buried there, holds himself outside the establishment.

When asked by a former army friend who now leads the Algerian rebels why he doesn’t join them, he says, “I join you my way. I teach the children to read.” He is a man who believes in personal responsibility and loyalty, and struggles with every step that takes Mohamed closer to his fate.

Director David Oelhoffen has adapted a 1957 short story by French Nobel Prize winner, Albert Camus. The original story wasn’t set in the Algerian conflict but was written with those events in mind. The film draws its own moral judgement while showing that dignity and honour can flourish even in the harshest of circumstances.

At first I was uncomfortable that the only women in the cast seemed to be the prostitutes on the city outskirts, and no Algerian women were shown. But just as that small school is the centre of hope for the future, the classroom includes young girls who are just as interested in learning as boys.

When I’m asked at the end of the year for my top five favourite films, I can guarantee Far From Men will be high on the list.

 

Far From Men is showing at Palace Electric Cinema

The reviewer saw the film as a guest of Palace Cinema.

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Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (http://mythsandmisadventures.blogspot.com.au/), is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author

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