Far From Men

August 1, 2015
Viggo Mortensen in 'Far from Men' (2014)
Viggo Mortensen in 'Far from Men' (2014)

Albert Camus’s fiction is often set in Algeria, where a dry, barren landscape is used as an appropriately bare stage for existential dilemmas to be played out. These episodes are related in deadpan fashion but may be a matter of life or death.

Each story is precisely conceived, so it’s a dangerous exercise to take one of them and stretch it into a feature film – a feat that can only be accomplished by adding a few extra chapters. This is what David Oelhoffen has done in Far From Men, based on Camus’s story, The Guest. Instead of a brief tale with a twist in the end, we get a lengthy narrative in which the characters are fleshed out, given personal histories and complex relationships. The new plot is ingenious in its way, but the film never shakes off the feeling that the director is making a little go a very long way.

Far From Men is good on atmosphere and cinematography, but Oelhoffen nominates himself for that club of filmmakers who mistake slowness for profundity.

Viggo Mortensen plays Daru, a school teacher in a remote corner of the Atlas Mountains. It is a bleak, stony, dusty part of the world, where he teaches a small class of Arab children. Yet Daru feels comfortable in this life, having been born in Algeria into a family of Spanish immigrants.

All this is soon to change with the beginning of the Algerian War of Independence. Oelhoffen puts the rebellion at the heart of the film, giving a moral and political dimension to Camus’s existentialist concerns. It’s no longer a story about the decisions one makes, and those that are made for you by blind destiny. Now it’s a question of how Daru deals with the realisation that his Arab countrymen see him as an interloper. It’s the story of a man caught between two worlds, forced to act in ways that cut against the grain.

One day, an old gendarme rides up to Daru’s door with an Arab prisoner in tow. This man, Mohamed (Reda Kateb), has murdered his cousin, and has to be taken to the town of Tinguit where justice will be served. Daru is surprised to learn he has been deputised by the local authorities to escort the prisoner to gaol, as the policeman is needed elsewhere.

This is a dilemma because Daru knows that if he takes Mohamed to Tinguit, the man will most probably be executed. He doesn’t want this responsibility, which he finds dishonourable. Oelhoffen makes matters more complicated by introducing a feud whereby Mohamed’s relatives are out for revenge, and Daru feels obliged to protect his ‘guest’.

As the two men wander through the dusty mountains, trying to avoid the Arab vigilantes, they run across the rebel forces, some of them Daru’s old comrades whom he fought alongside in the Second World War on behalf of France. A bloody confrontation between the rebels and the French colonial forces makes it clear that the coming war is going to be brutal. Those who wish to see just how nasty it became should refer to Gillo Potecorvo’s famous film, The Battle of Algiers (1966).

It feels as if one is watching a very slow spaghetti western in which a sheriff has to take a prisoner through the badlands, with danger on all sides. The music, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, is so discreet it barely ripples our attention. It functions as an aid to the cinematographer, Guillaume Deffontaines, in evoking a sense of emptiness in the landscape, and in the hearts of the characters who are facing their ruin.

Spanish actress, Ángela Molina makes a surprise appearance towards the end of the film as the madam of a very low-key brothel, but Daru and Mohamed are the only two characters with more than a cameo. It’s an especially testing role for Viggo Mortensen, who is almost never off-screen. Speaking exclusively in French, he has to play a man of deep feeling who conceals his emotions behind a stoic mask. Daru is a tough guy with a sense of compassion who slowly realises that his monkish idyll is coming to an end.

Mohamed has his own dilemma: whether to sacrifice himself to French justice to prevent a round of revenge killings among his clansmen, or simply flee for his life. He is fatalistic but not entirely without hope. In this respect Oelhoffen is more positive than Camus.

The problem is that Far From Men is one of those films that is easy to analyse but hard to enjoy. The pacing is so deliberate it eventually becomes soporific. This may be an accurate reflection of the way people live their lives on the edge of a desert, but it doesn’t make for gripping cinema. There’s a limit to how much of this dry, harsh stuff one can endure when you only wanted a night at the pictures.

Far From Men
Directed by David Oelhoffen,
Written by David Oelhoffen & Antoine Lacombiez, after a story by Albert Camus
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Reda Kateb, Vincent Martin, Ángela Molina
France, rated M, 101 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 1st August, 2015.