Directed, written by David Oelhoffen, loosely based on a short story “The Guest,” by Albert Camus the French production Far From Men now at Palace Cinemas in Australia is a powerful, slow moving thought provoking film for adults.
It provides a defining viewpoint of French-Algerian tensions during the years following World War II. It’s about two men from very different cultures and backgrounds.
Together they face the dilemma those who have a guiding inner moral compass can be forced to address at times when their actions are called into account and they have to hold fast with courage to their convictions.
Featuring acclaimed Danish American actor, poet, musician, painter and photographer Viggo Mortensen as a mature age reclusive schoolteacher Daru and the talented French Actor Reda Kateb as Mohamed who, accused of murder, is given into his charge.
This is an extraordinary film, an outstanding drama well worthy of respect.
At an isolated school in the vast windswept rocky ranges of the Atlas Mountains in French Algeria in 1954, Daru (Mortensen) is giving local children an ability to read in the hope that they may grow up and have a very different future. This is a place where water and food is in short supply and a most precious commodity.
As the story opens we find Daru has realised that he will have to abandon his plans to stay in the desolate valley where personally he has found inner peace, and accept he will have to seek what remains of his life elsewhere.
Living in a room attached to his schoolhouse Daru is now vulnerable to the whim of roving dissidents with murder in their hearts. During his time at the school Daru has not only taught his charges to read but also dispensed wisdom to the children in his care, distributing bags of grain and flatbread to help sustain their families.
They admire him for it and have come to know and want the sort of future that may just be possible if they retain his guidance.
He knows knowledge is power and has the ability to set people free.
Mortensen with his insightful intensity, wonderfully chiselled features, steely strength and humble screen presence is just perfect in this lead role, demanding our empathy for his complex character, one that is finely drawn.
At the other end of the scale in his own unique sparing style French actor Reda Kateb gives us a profound and intuitive understanding of the downtrodden despairing Mohamed, who Daru has been charged to deliver up to French authorities and certain death.
It is heartening to witness Mohamed gradually grow in stature from the cringing defeated man who arrives Daru’s cottage to a man of honour standing tall by the end of their journey together. This is when Daru gives him a second chance on life if he wants to take it. To do so Mohamed must return the gift, offering his liberator complete trust.
Daru is the son of Spanish parents we discover, who despite being born and raised in a small village in Algeria only a day’s walk away where his family worked the land all their lives, is still considered an outsider by the two protagonists of this story, both the French and Algerians.
The National Liberation Front are the rebel force who are beginning their militant uprising. Daru is caught in a personal no man’s land between their aims and that of Algeria’s French conquerors who both see him and his ‘kind’ as intruders.
Before Daru can pack up his belongings and leave just before dusk one of the local gendarmes turns up with an as yet unnamed cowering Arab man in tow on the end of a rope. He gives Daru orders to take him to Tinguit a day’s walk away.
There he will stand trial for murdering his cousin and it’s a fait accompli he will be executed. If he refuses Daru is promised death too. When the gendarme leaves Daru realises he has to get out now if he wants to live.
Dismissively he unties his charge and tries to force him into the descending dark setting him free. Puzzingly though he resists all of Daru’s attempts to do so, only wanting him to take him to his certain death.
Daru speaks Arabic and French, as well as Spanish and his multi lingual abilities are at the essence of his ability to have survived so long in the hostile land he calls home, where he lives carefully attuned to the cultural differences, languages and harsh landscape.
The younger man also an outsider in this land recognises this and wants to persuade Daru to accompany him on what they both know will be a dangerous day’s journey along a dusty dirt track across the harsh countryside.
Mohamed needs to make it if he is to save his own family, although Daru doesn’t know that yet.
Overnight they have a connection as Daru tends his guest offering him hospitality as is the custom and helping him when he is feverish. By morning he knows he has failed in his attempts to turn his charge out.
After they survive another attack by more dissidents, finally Daru gives in and they leave to make the perilous journey on foot together.
They are a misfit pair both weathered by the harsh elements, one a 50 something Christian the other a 30 something Muslim who are thrown together by chance and circumstance and perhaps even the will of their ‘creator’.
On their journey they will find that they have more in common than they could have first thought or previously ever believed possible.
Daru has had a great deal of experience in times of war having been a major in the French army at one point in his life we discover, and by growing up in a place where society where taking revenge and objective militancy are both norms.
As they cross the awesomeness of this wilderness together they are forced up high into the bleak harsh and stony mountaintops to escape more roving rebels and armed forces, where in the wind and rain they forge a relationship based on mutual trust and shared experience.
This is interspersed with odd flashes of wit and dry humour, which helps to strengthen their friendship and the bond gradually developing between them under the most appalling of circumstances.
Daru seeks to understand Mohamed, who has been given his traditional name because he’s the eldest son of his family. As they gain mutual respect Mohamed slowly reveals to Daru the reason he murdered his cousin and why he has accepted that by going to his death he will be able to stop the cycle of vengeance his much younger brothers will be forced to accept as their norm in the future.
Mohamed truly believes his willingness to accept his fate is the only way to keep his family safe and relates to Daru that this is why he wants to get to Tinguit and end his life, but its not something his new friend can embrace at all.
Along the way they have challenging encounters and face death a number of times while exploring the codes of honour they both live by, further strengthening their growing bond.
At all times Daru treats Mohamed with respect and as an equal and he’s distressed deeply that he is put into a position that he has to kill a passing traveller himself to keep them both safe.
Captured by rebels at first and then rescued by the French in a change of circumstance, it will be a miracle if they survive at all. However Mohamed has chosen wisely and Daru brings them both through, endearing us all to them both along the way.
The original music and sound effects in this movie together with natural light cinematography highlight the interminable dust bowl and awesome majesty of the rugged rocky Atlas mountains, as well as the constant perils of just walking in the landscape they are both traversing.
Inviting and foreboding in many ways the scenery echoes who they both are.
Despite being set in the 1950’s the challenges and choices Daru and Mohammed are both forced to face up to have a very strong resonance with many of the issues in our own contemporary times and the triumph of this movie is embodied in these two actors and their performances, which are engaging on a very deep level.
So for his second chance choice what road will Mohammed choose to take? The one into the desert where he may survive and have some sort of life after all, or forward down the hill to the village where acceptance of certain death is his destiny and fate.
Take the journey and find out. Far From Men is a wonderful achievement. 4.5/5
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
Far from Men
CAST & CREDITS
Director: David Oelhoffen
Screenwriter: David Oelhoffen
Producer: Marc Du Pontavice, Matthew Gledhill
Editor: Juliette Welfling
Cinematographer: Guillaume Deffontaines
Composer: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Co-Producer: Viggo Mortensen, Olivier Charvet
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Reda Kateb