Take Antonio Banderas as a desert sheikh and Freida Pinto as a harem charmer, add large doses of orientalism and vast stretches of sand, and you get $55 million worth of “Black Gold,” the first major international co-production for the Doha Film Institute, which has touted the pic as a harbinger of bigtime filmmaking in Qatar. Perhaps this wasn’t the horse to back. Helmer/co-scripter Jean-Jacques Annaud’s rep for spectacle over screenplay is again borne out in this overblown yet oddly anemic epic of warring Arabian tribes during the nascent oil boom.
Major resources were corralled in both Tunisia (the birthplace of producer Tarak Ben Ammar) and Qatar to replicate the sprawling desert locales of mid-20th-century novelist Hans Ruesch’s fictional imagining of the dawn of the oil revolution, with city-states erected, camels herded and helicopter shots readied. An international cast was assembled to make it more attractive for Stateside and Euro markets — the Arab world is unlikely to embrace this simplistic romanticization — but the results won’t generate much B.O. even from viewers immune to near-certain harsh critical response. U.S. rollout is anticipated for late December.
Warring kingdoms where loyalty is “elusive as the shifting sands” end their fight by agreeing to turn the contested “Yellow Belt” into a no man’s land. In keeping with tradition, the losing side, ruled by Sultan Amar (Brit thesp Mark Strong), agrees to give up his two young sons as hostages to the victor, Emir Nesib (Spaniard Banderas). As the boys grow up in Nesib’s household, the rapacious Emir collaborates with Texan Sam Thurkettle (Corey Johnson), granting lucrative oil exploration rights in the Yellow Belt, even though the zone is technically off limits to all parties.
Amar’s sons Saleh (Turkish-Cypriot actor Akin Gazi) and Auda (French-born Algerian Tahar Rahim) have different pursuits: Saleh is the sporty type, while Auda’s bookish tendencies are unsubtly signaled by the actor’s eyeglasses. Nesib builds schools and clinics for his people with oil revenues, but his interest is purely financial, and the principled Amar decides it’s time to remind his enemy of their treaty.
Auda is married off to Nesib’s luscious daughter Leyla (Indian actress Pinto), a union that’s based on love, but its political expediency rankles, and the young man is sent to his father as an emissary to calm the waters. Auda soon recognizes Amar’s just cause and agrees to act as leader of a decoy mission to distract Nesib by taking an army of released prisoners across the forbidding sands, while Amar surprises his rival from the other side.
This gives helmer Annaud the chance to indulge in large setpieces featuring desert battles and arduous treks, yet the spectacle is muted, and scenes proceed with little energy. The script is full of the usual “defend the honor of our house” stuff that’s only slightly removed from the classic “yonder lies the castle of my father,” and the simplistic narrative, pitting the slightly wicked, venal yet progressive Nesib against the cold, traditionalist Amar, has no more nuance or depth than the thesping. Tribesmen are caricatured as cretinous fanatics, while the script tries to remind viewers that the Koran mentions peace more than war.
In this post-Edward Said era, things apparently haven’t moved from the fantasy depictions of Rudolph Valentino’s “The Sheik” (1921) and 1933’s “The Barbarian” with Ramon Novarro. Annaud has acknowledged using 19th-century orientalist painters as inspiration; the harem scenes with an underused Pinto could have been lifted from a Victorian tableau vivant, and not in a good way.
This conception is also borne out by the dearth of Arab actors in the film’s major roles; of course casting can be a mix of ethnicities, but for a film that wants to turn common perceptions of the Arab away from the terrorist model and toward a romanticized stereotype, “Black Gold” makes no effort to incorporate performers who could at least have lent it a note of semi-authenticity. Banderas’ performance tends toward hamminess, his line delivery suggesting Horatio Caine in “CSI: Miami.” Rahim, excellent in “A Prophet,” nobly tries to give Auda a modicum of depth, and Anglo-Pakistani thesp Riz Ahmed thankfully injects a note of comic irony as Auda’s half-brother Ali.
Visuals occasionally impress, especially some scenes of the two city-states set in the vast desert, yet despite the money lavished on the production, there’s little sense of the expense onscreen. Costume designer Fabio Perrone is more interested in fantasy than in accuracy, and the sound quality seems to have passed too often through the recording studio. James Horner’s orchestrations have an expected sweep that adds to the general feel of a 1950s 20th Century Fox pic inexplicably transported to the present.