Venice 2014: Far From Men

Director: David Oelhoffen
Viggo Mortensen, Reda Kateb
Length: 110 mins

Far From Men (Loin des Hommes), another candidate for the Golden Lion award, is an excellently simple yet profound drama, based on Albert Camus’ short story The Guest. Set in Algeria in 1954, it sees Daru (Viggo Mortensen) escorting Mohamed (Reda Kateb), a murderer, to the town of his trial, and, quite possibly, execution. Showcasing majestic Algerian rocky plateaus to a fitting score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, Far From Men is a story of humanity and friendship, echoing the traditions of classic American westerns.

The selection of war films in Venice has been impressive: ranging from Shinya Tsukamoto’s intensely surreal Nobi (Fires on a Plain) to Joshua Oppenheimer’s masterful documentary The Look of Silence, these films have offered a lot of food for thought regarding the human relationship with violence. Far From Men, in this writer’s opinion, is one of the strongest and most focused of the lot.

The simplicity of its story – two people have to get from point A to point B, one being very different from another – is both rewarding and challenging. On one hand, it means that the film is paced extremely well as its not distracted by minor plot lines (no love story here as well, phew), however, it also renders character development quite difficult. Only witnessing Daru and Mohamed within this particular story renders them into symbols of two conflicting value systems rather than living, breathing characters.

However, seeing as Oelhoffen has chosen an excellent story as a basis for his film, this device does not drain Far From Men of its strength. The original title of the story, L’Hôte, can mean both ‘guest’ and ‘host’, and it is reflective of the relationship between the characters. Daru, a French-speaking teacher, finds himself an outsider during the war; being born in Algeria to Spanish parents, he was an “Arab to the French, and the French to the Arabs”. Mohamed is charged with killing his cousin, revealing a complex system of honor, out of which the only solution is his death by the French. Mohamed states his dislike of speaking French in the beginning, thus Daru converses in Arabic (fluently mastered by Mortensen and added to the ever-growing list of languages he knows) yet in the end both of them speak each other’s languages; an effort to be a host, to pass the borders of nationality, to communicate.

Mortensen’s crafting of Daru was very much based on a quote he’d read in the diaries of Camus: “I’m not cut out for politics because I am not capable of desiring the death of my adversary”.

Communication, I believe, is one of the key topics of the film, and it is optimistic about the possibility of doing so. It is perhaps the (only) means of subverting and transgressing pre-set boundaries of relationships between different people, countries, ethnicities. And this is what it’s concerned with instead of dwelling on historical politics. During the press conference, Viggo Mortensen argued that in his opinion, Far From Men specifically addresses the difficulty of having clear political ideas in such a violent environment, and this is not contained within the context of the Algerian War of Independence or the tragedy of colonialism, but applies to warfare and oppression in general. And his crafting of Daru, he said, was very much based on a quote he’d read in the diaries of Camus: “I’m not cut out for politics because I am not capable of desiring the death of my adversary”.

Mortensen indeed shines brightly in this film. It seems that he is moving further and further away from Hollywood-based projects, and that ensures much more artistic freedom. In preparation for this role, Mortensen read everything written by Camus and travelled to Algeria, meeting the people and visiting the places that Camus loved. And it definitely shows: Daru is a collection of numerous characters one comes across throughout Camus’ novels; he is contained yet determined, honourable yet striving to live. I cannot imagine an actor, better suited for this role. Kateb’s Mohamed is equally well crafted, and both of them work in excellent harmony.

The only flaw of which I can accuse this film is its lack of existential dilemma so prevalent in The Guest and Camus’ oeuvre. Daru’s goodness is immediately clear, and thus it is only a matter of time until him and Mohamed form a strong bond; there is no doubt in his action. Perhaps that is why the choice Mohamed has to make in the end does not work as a climactic moment as well as it could do; it lacks the weight of his choice, the existential gravity.

Oelhoffen argues that Far From Men is the most subversive film made about the Algerian war since 1966’s Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo. There is nothing more subversive that loving or showing compassion nowadays, Mortensen added. I agree: Far From Men is not an attempt to judge; it is a journey.

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