Adapted from the Albert Camus short story The Guest, David Oelhoffen’s second feature Far From Men (2014), a handsomely shot drama set during the Algerian War of Independence, joined the race for the Golden Lion at Venice 2014. Following his Spanish language Cannes entry Jauja (2014) earlier this year, multi-lingual Viggo Mortensen essays the role of Algerian-born Frenchman Daru, a teacher in an isolated school near the mountains. It is 1954 and the rebellion against French colonialism is in full swing. One day the local policeman turns up on horseback with a prisoner roped behind. Daru must escort the man to the near town where he is to be tried for murdering his cousin.
At first Daru refuses, a man of principle he will not be party to sending another man to his death. However, the vexed official leaves the prisoner Mohamed (Reda Kateb) behind and when the relatives of the dead man attack the school in order to exact blood vengeance, Daru is forced to start on the journey. The two men travelling on foot through roughest terrain, past abandoned villages and exposed to the elements and violence from all sides: first, the relatives of the dead man, but then enraged local French farmers who are happy to hang any Arab they find suspicious regardless of the crime. There are also bandits in the hills, but by far the biggest danger comes from the escalating war between the rebellion of national liberation and a murderously extreme French army with orders to take no prisoners.
Far From Men is set up like a classic western: there are horses and gunfights and even at one point a saloon. The isolation of the schoolhouse brings to mind The Searchers, while Daru’s mission – such as it is – feels like 3:10 to Tinguit. Daru’s war veteran turned pacifist has something of Henry Fonda’s nobleness and Mortensen is one of the few actors working today (Mads Mikkelsen is another) who can make straightforward goodness into a rich and interesting character. There’s even a little of Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) here, as the unlikely pair cross and re-cross invisible battle fronts. However, this isn’t some generic, postmodern experiment. The film is heartfelt and sincere in its concern to understand conflict and the plight of good men when they’re forced to make impossible choices.
The nascent friendship between Daru and his charge matures into a friendship as both characters learn to understand their situation better. Mohammad refuses the freedom Daru offers him, preferring to go to his death for noble reasons that belong to a culture that the didactic Daru doesn’t – despite his lifetime spent in Algeria – fully understand. Kateb is fantastic as well, matching Mortensen’s star power with a portrait in a different kind of honour. This is all set in the context of a magnificent widescreen landscape of desert and mountain range, shot by Guillaume Deffontaines. This visual polish is not for its own sake, however, and the extremes of weather and location are used to admirable effect, pitting our tiny individuals against the enormity not only of the hostile land, but of historical forces far beyond their mutual control.
Far From Men is further bolstered by a stunning score courtesy of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, a fitting companion piece to their work on John Hillcoat’s Australia-set The Proposition (2005). They effectively blend local instruments without falling into exotic clichés, creating a soundscape – a little reminiscent of Philip Glass’ score for Kundun (1997) – to match the epic proportions on screen. Mortensen has parleyed his success and fame from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy into the possibility to make a wide range of experiments. In this case, he’s amply rewarded with a film from Oelhoffen that’s both a riveting, old-fashioned adventure and a politically considered treatment of a dark period in French colonial history.
The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.