Beautifully crafted and stunningly photographed by ace Greek cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis on location in Eritrea, "Port Djema" is an existential thriller with a flawed center. Though first-time director Eric Heumann potently captures the eeriness of being a complete stranger in a mysterious, hostile country, contrivances in the screenplay and the disappointing treatment of two of the key characters ensures that the film, which in mood often resembles Antonioni's "The Passenger," just misses major status. Heumann, who produced "Indochine" as well as two films by Greek director Theo Angelopoulos (who returns the favor by co-producing Heumann's film), has made extremely ambitious pic about a journey, not unlike that described by Conrad in "Heart of Darkness," which takes its protagonist into an elusive, mysterious, even evil world.
Pierre Feldman (Jean-Yves Dubois) is a Paris surgeon who comes to the imaginary North African country of Port Djema to fulfill a promise he made to an old friend, Dr. Antoine Barasse (Frederic Pierrot), who ran a remote desert clinic from which he gave medical help to Assad rebels at war with the government. Barasse has been murdered, and at first it seems as though Feldman has come to investigate his friend’s death; actually, it’s soon revealed, he is looking for a child whose photo Barasse had sent him, saying he wanted this boy saved.
Early scenes potently establish the urbane Feldman’s responses to Port Djema, where the streets are dirt tracks, the hotel is seriously shabby, the shower doesn’t work, and he’s eyed with suspicion by practically everybody. He’s approached by Delbos (Christophe Odent), an official from the French Embassy, who warns him not to travel north, and reminds him that French policy in this former French colony is that of neutrality toward the warring sides. But Delbos seems to be playing a devious game of his own.
Ignoring the warning, Feldman does, indeed, travel north, accompanied for part of the way by Alice (Nathalie Boutefeu), a pert Swiss photographer forever taking pics of the shadows of palm trees. She turns out to have been a close friend of Barasse, but she and Feldman soon go their separate ways, and their journeys come to parallel one another.
As Feldman’s search for the boy continues, he finds himself in danger on all sides, literally losing his identity (when his passport is torn to pieces by a bullying army officer) and herded in with other frightened civilians fleeing from the civil war.
Heumann’s vivid depiction of this increasingly nightmarish world is the film’s great achievement. The barren Eritrean landscapes are stunningly photographed by Arvanitis who, as usual, shows a fondness for lateral tracking shots which pull the viewer into the drama.
But Heumann is less successful with his characters. Jean-Yves Dubois’ Feldman becomes an irritatingly foolhardy fellow, and the actor almost never suggests that this sophisticated Parisian is out of his depth and in fear of his life; he tends to stroll around with hands in pockets in the most scary situations, his face registering little in the way of emotion. Also off-key is Nathalie Boutefeu’s very sophisticated Alice, a character who seems to have strayed in from a far more commercial and less ambitious film, but who, in the end, has very little to do.
All technical credits are wholly professional, with a special nod for Sanjay Mishra’s hauntingly lovely music score. No doubt Heumann will direct more films, and on the basis of this near-miss is certainly a helmer to watch on the French scene.