Nouveau western ‘Far From Men’ hits close to home
It is no accident that the western, so identified with the classic studio era of Hollywood cinema, continues to animate filmmakers into the 21st century. The central trope of the genre, of the individual pitted against landscape and community, is highly cinematic. Possibly, even more importantly for contemporary filmmakers, the tensions embodied within the form itself – of settler against indigene, of individual justice versus collective punishment, of romantic celebration of the natural world against the perceived corruption of urbanisation – are still resonant. They are themes that remain both contradictory and seductive. And again, it is no accident that in our national cinema, from Wake in Fright and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith to Mad Dog Morgan and Shame, and more recently The Tracker and The Proposition, the western genre has proved one of the most fruitful through which filmmakers can explore the fraught racial, homosocial and colonialist history of our country.
Frenchman David Oelhoffen’s film Far from Men is a gripping and immersive western that uses the genre to explore another colonialist nightmare, that of the French occupation of Algiers. Set in 1954, at the beginning of the independence war, and based on Albert Camus’ short story “The Guest”, it stars Viggo Mortensen as a village schoolteacher, Daru, who is asked to transport an Arab prisoner, Mohamed (Reda Kateb), to be tried by a French-Algerian court in a town across the Atlas Mountains. Daru initially resists this undertaking but, aware of the competing struggles among the Pied-Noir and Arab communities, of the increasing violence borne from both occupation and resistance, he reluctantly becomes Mohamed’s guide.
On the evidence of this film, Oelhoffen is a determinedly classical filmmaker, the mise en scène carefully composed, with both narrative and composition adhering faithfully to the conventions of the genre. But he is skilful at communicating tension and is economic and judicial in his depiction of violence – true directorial gifts in this genre. When killing occurs in Far from Men it takes the viewer by surprise, it is genuinely shocking. The conservatism of his choices doesn’t allow for the hallucinatory and operatic flourishes that, for example, were so exhilarating and confronting in Claire Denis’s White Material, another recent French film that used the western genre to interrogate and condemn colonisation. In that film, the alienation of a white settler’s exile got under our very skin. The violence of racism indicted us as viewers as we increasingly shared the paranoia of the lead character played by Isabelle Huppert. Far from Men keeps us at a distance.
It is Mortensen and Kateb who involve us emotionally. Conceptually, Mortensen’s Daru shouldn’t work as a character: it is clearly a writer’s conceit, an intellectual who also possesses great firearms skills and is a trained and courageous warrior. But Mortensen, from the opening scene, pulls it off. He makes us believe in the integrity and quiet power of the character. In the classic Anglophone western, the hero is also taciturn and isolated from his community, but he is rarely an intellect; usually, unless played as a world-weary alcoholic, the intellectual is a figure of suspicion or derision. Mortensen has a heroic presence but he is also unafraid of conveying an almost feline grace. There are moments in this film when he reminded me of the young Gary Cooper, and of Steve McQueen, two other actors who convincingly integrated sensuality and masculinity. These are qualities he shares with Kateb, and when they are together on screen their interaction is absolutely riveting.
The growing trust between the two men forms the core of the movie. Dialogue is minimal for most of the running time, as befits a story about two men separated by language and by culture. Kateb and Mortensen deliver understated performances but they are both impeccable at finding the small gesture that conveys emotion. The intimacy of their growing dependence is framed against the staggering and brutal desert terrain of North Africa. The danger in this traditional narrative is to confer a historical nobility on the Mohamed character, to make individual will and individual choice the province only of the European. Another of the film’s quiet strengths is that it treats both men’s experiences of exile as equally significant.
Oelhoffen and his co-scriptwriter, Antoine Lacomblez, are astute in making language the pivot for the confused status of belonging in this colonialist landscape. As the two men encounter both Europeans and Arabs on their journey, the question of what constitutes a “true” Algerian, of where their individual loyalty lies, is framed around the use of French, of Arabic, of Berber and other European languages. This doesn’t negate the contradictions of religion and class, of birth and ancestry, that bedevil the question of belonging in a contested colonial space, but in making language crucial to understanding Daru’s and Mohamed’s alienation the filmmakers unobtrusively keep faith with Camus’ original story. Again, it confirms the astute choice of casting Mortensen in this central role, an actor whose mixed Nordic and Latin American émigré heritage adds further resonance to the story.
It may be a little unfair to wish that Far from Men was bolder, that it conveyed more of the frenzy and ruthlessness of the Algerian conflict, a conflict that was both a demand for liberation and a civil war. Its weakest moments are when it allows 21st-century hindsight to impinge on its otherwise carefully sustained sense of historic place and time, or when it too faithfully adheres to the clichés of the classic western. There is a latter scene at a brothel, for instance, deftly executed by all the cast, which feels like it belongs to another, more conventional movie. But maybe the careful and restrained mise en scène is integral to the film’s effectiveness. It is a work of real and quiet dignity.
The film opens and closes on a long shot of a one-room schoolhouse in a forbidding and awe-inspiring desert valley, framed by the stony peaks of the mountains. The opening scene and the final scene gently but devastatingly underscore the link the film makes between language and exile, between meaning and belonging. As much as Mortensen and Kateb, the terrain and its people are the real focus of Far from Men, and we never forget that the politics arises from real suffering. I don’t think that there is a character, no matter how insignificant, who isn’t treated with humanity in this film. Our respect feels earned, and our being moved is genuine and illuminating.
In one of cinema’s most elegiac closing shots, in John Ford’s The Searchers, John Wayne disappears from the frame, restoring domesticity and cohesion back to a landscape devastated by colonial racist conflict. Far from Men also concludes with the disappearance of its European hero; but to devastating effect, it suggests that this is not enough to defeat the violence of history.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 1, 2015 as "Atlas slugged". Subscribe here.