French writer-director Oelhoffen parlays a 1957 short story by Albert Camus into a quietly riveting quasi-Western, set in the sere rocky uplands of Algeria in the 1954, at the start of the bloody war against the French colonisers.
Mortensen, in a wonderfully contained performance in which he displays his proficiency in both Arabic and French, plays Daru, an ex-soldier whose quiet life as a backblocks schoolteacher is interrupted by the arrival of a mounted gendarme with an Arab prisoner (Kateb).
The gendarme orders Daru to take the Arab (Camus pointedly never named him but Oelhoffen calls him Mohamed) to the nearest garrison town.
Camus' finely wrought 5000- word story packs a lot in, though the pair never make the trip. Rather, the action is all internal: Daru's reluctance to take sides; the Arab's ambivalence about freedom; and a ending dripping with sour dramatic irony; all add up to an intense rumination on the nature of colonialism and whether it is possible ever to slip the bonds of race and class.
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Oelfhoffen wisely opens things out, giving Daru a back-story and establishing a context. Encounters with both of the warring parties ratchet up the tension too as the characters of the two men, who eye each other warily, slowly come into focus.
But it remains a road movie, set mostly in a landscape with no roads and the script deftly exploits the ambiguities in the relationship between captor and captive, who depend on each other to survive in hostile territory.
Cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines finds an austere and haunting beauty in the setting (it was shot in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco), repeatedly returning to long shots that underline human insignificance and the moody, woodwind-heavy soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is a treat.
As Westerns go, it is certainly well outside the mainstream, but this small film will linger in the mind longer than most shoot-out standards.
Far From Men
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Reda Kateb
Director: David Oelhoffen
Running Time: 102 mins
Rating: M (violence) In French and Arabic with English subtitles
Verdict: Handsome and quietly riveting