EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?
|WHITE MATERIAL (director/writer: Claire Denis; screenwriter: Marie N'Diaye; cinematographer: Yves Cape; editor: Guy Lecorne; music: Stuart S. Staples; cast: (Maria Vial), Isaach De Bankolé (The Boxer), Christophe Lambert (André Vial), Nicolas Duvauchelle (Manuel Vial), William Nadylam (Cherif, The Mayor), Adèle Ado (Lucie Vial), Ali Barkai (Jeep), Daniel Tchangang (José), Michel Subor (Henri Vial); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Pascal Caucheteux; IFC Films; 2009-France-in French with English subtitles)|
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Director Claire Denis ("Beau Travail"/"35 Shots of Rum"/"Friday Night"), who was raised in French-colonial Africa, co-writes with Marie N'Diaye this tale of cultural survival in a beautiful but inhospitable place. The
urgent and lyrical film is
about madness and racial tensions overcoming a country. It's set
in an unnamed French-speaking
country in Africa (shot in Cameroon) in the midst of a bloody
civil war. The featured player is a stubborn and proud white French
woman, Maria Vial (), who senselessly refuses to leave her dilapidated coffee plantation despite the apparent
dangers. She's warned to leave by a French army
helicopter, and realizes things are chaotic over the following incidents: when her
workers abandon her, her estranged husband (Christophe Lambert) wants to sell the place behind her back
for a song to the local warlord-like mayor
(William Nadylam), her sick invalid elderly father-in-law (Michel Subor) is rotting away and is unable to help run
plantation, and her troubled indolent immature twentysomething son,
Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), born in Africa, has gone warrior-like
bonkers after a violent mugging by hostile kid rebel warriors. The
rebels, whose ranks are filled with child soldiers, challenge the
government army, as the land erupts in violence and no one is safe and
the European settlers flee.
Foolhardy but tireless second-generation coffee grower Maria refuses to leave before
she harvests her crop, even if the war places herself and her family in
imminent danger. The
crazed settler goes to the impoverished village to recruit new workers
and resourcefully brings in the harvest.
We pick up the story as the
apolitical Maria, wearing a pink dress, makes her way home in a crowded
bus filled with blacks after forced to evacuate her burning plantation
and in her Conrad-like Heart of Darkness tale her story of the last few
trying days unfolds in
In flashback we see the
wounded charismatic rebel leader Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé) is treated in her house before returning
to the countryside to die among the rebels; his fate in this stagnant
country seems just as doomed as the fate of Maria's, though she's too
blind to see that.
This highly personal film
asks why the white Maria wants to remain in a black country where she's
not wanted and doesn't fit in. The easy answer, but not necessarily the
correct answer, is that she can't let go of what she has. Though it leads to a bloody shocking
conclusion, nothing is really clear as the filmmaker wants each viewer
to come to their own conclusions even if there's not enough info in the
story to do that justice.
When a rebel child soldier calls a lighter he finds at the coffee
plantation ‘white material,’ we have the title. During the rebels’
material’ is again used as a derisive racial phrase.
Despite being hazy and
incomplete, there's a certain power and surprise in the story that
holds your attention and leaves you feeling uneasy. This might be a fictional film that shuns
politics, but it has too many realistic events mixed-in to not think of
it as a fitting film on the chaos, violence, economic stagnation and
racial unrest in modern Africa.
REVIEWED ON 11/28/2010 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"
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