DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
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: Isabelle Huppert (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)

 
"Leaves you feeling uneasy."

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 (Isabelle Huppert), 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 the 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 episodic flashbacks.

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’ radio broadcasts ‘white 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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