Europe’s tormenting problem of clandestine immigration from African countries is seen through fresh eyes in French helmer Andre Techine’s “Far Away.” Breaking out of many stereotypes, pic shows not only the longing of poor Moroccans to find work in the north, but the fascination experienced by a French truck driver for the lands of the south. The character-driven story, lensed with startling clarity and prowess by the director of “The Wild Reeds” and “Alice and Martin,” is, however, weakly narrated and in need of a shorter running time if it is to make inroads with audiences beyond those interested in African topics, which is a not a large crowd.
Story is divided into three days, beginning with Serge’s (Stephane Rideau) departure from Spain in his modern, multiaxle tractor-trailer to carry cloth into Morocco and bring luxury garments out. In Tangiers, he looks up his friend Said (Mohamed Hamaidi) and asks him to help smooth things over with his angry girlfriend, Sarah (Lubna Azabal), who runs the small hotel where Said works. The tangled but quite believable relationships of this odd trio create the film’s dynamic center.
Said makes a deal with Serge to help him with Sarah if he’ll hide him in his truck on his way back to Spain. Sarah’s mother has recently died and the family has decided to sell the pension, giving him an additional reason to attempt a dangerous passage, clinging to the chassis under the enormous vehicle.
Meanwhile, Serge is tormented by an ambiguous arrangement he made in Spain to smuggle hashish into Europe. Tension builds as he meets with his Arab contact on a back road and is forced to hand over his keys. The next morning, the truck reappears and Serge has no idea what they’ve put inside.
In another well-handled scene, Said exchanges his savings for black market Spanish pesetas in a sinister part of town. A breathless bicycle chase follows which, brief as it is, is as exciting as a Hollywood car chase. But despite the strong trafficking and immigration elements, Techine and co-scripter Faouzi Bensaidi (who appears in the film as the Spanish fixer) rightly avoid turning the film into an action movie; instead, they keep the story in soft focus, flitting around the characters’ precarious relationships. As dynamic as Herve de Luze’s editing often is, this lack of a narrative arrow pointing to the end makes film’s two hours seem to drag on too long.
Slowly the circle widens to include Sarah’s sister-in-law, a writer (delicately played by writer-actress Yasmina Reza) living in Canada with Sarah’s wealthy brother. An orthodox Jew like her husband, she has come to Tangiers to respect the mourning rites. They urge Sarah to join them in Canada, but she feels emotionally dependent on the moody loner Serge, who is always hopping in his truck and leaving her.
Both of the Moroccan characters are believably drawn and sensitively portrayed by Azabal and Hamaidi as distinctive individuals, not types. Rideau’s aggressive, self-interested Serge could have used an endearing trait or two — beyond a sensual bedroom scene — to explain why Sarah is obsessed with him.
Filling out the portrait of Tangiers as a multiethnic melting pot full of mystery and desire are colorful folk like an unmarried, pregnant friend of Sarah’s, a footloose French filmmaker, and James (Jack Taylor), an aging, cultivated American who is the center of a clique of young men, based on the city’s famous longtime resident Paul Bowles.
The production is distinguished by cinematographer Germain Desmoulins’ usually fine work, despite some uniformity from the DV look, particularly in the bright exteriors which dominate the film. Juliette Garrigues’ use of strong African vocals on the soundtrack reinforces the clarity of the visuals.