A foolhardy and apparently fearless Dutch cook ventures into the African jungle in search of his son’s playmate in the well-intentioned but at times thoroughly silly “The Silent Army.” Tale of an African child soldier rescued by a brave white man is a passion project of Congo-born, Netherlands-based scribe-helmer Jean van de Velde (“All Stars”), who puts his considerable filmmaking talent at the mercy of a screenplay riddled with cliches and improbabilities. Liberal-guilt slots at fests are a given, and pockets of arthouse resistance should not be ruled out.
Pic presented in Cannes is a substantially reworked version of helmer’s “Wit licht,” which was critically drubbed upon its release in the Netherlands in December. However, it was a success in terms of admissions, partly due to a tie-in with tickets for concerts by the film’s star, Marco Borsato. The singer-turned-thesp, who makes his acting debut here, is an ambassador for a Dutch charity that works with children from war-torn nations.
“Army” is about a half-hour shorter than “Wit licht” (literally “White Light”), and the story is now told chronologically rather than through laborious flashbacks. And with the complete removal of Nick Laird-Clowes’ bombastic score, the new edit partly curbs the earlier version’s tendency to turn serious matters into generic action-movie fodder.
Borsato plays Eduard, the Dutch cook and owner of a fancy restaurant in an unnamed African country (pic was shot in Uganda and South Africa). After the death of his wife, he has to raise his 9-year-old son, Thomas (Siebe Schoneveld), by himself.
Thomas’ buddy is Abu (Andrew Kintu), the son of one the restaurant’s local employees. When the latter is kidnapped by a warlord (Abby Mukiibi Nkaaga, “The Last King of Scotland”), who turns him into a child soldier, Thomas nags his father about Abu’s whereabouts until Eduard travels into rebel territory to find him.
Van de Velde alternates the ludicrously naive cook’s search with snippets of the grueling experiences of 11-year-old Abu during and after his kidnapping, and the latter rep the pic’s strongest scenes. It again becomes clear that the stories of African child soldiers as told from the inside — such as in “Heart of Fire” and “Johnny Mad Dog” — offer much stronger, more visceral material than the dramas of rich white men confronted with the same (“Blood Diamond,” “24: Redemption”).
The Cannes cut, also credited to German editor Peter R. Adam, is a leaner version that thankfully drops much of the preachy dialogue of refugee worker Valerie (Thekla Reuten, “Sleeper Cell”) and ends earlier, omitting a spectacular but otherwise nonsensical struggle on an airborne plane.
However, Eduard’s irrational behavior and the many narrative improbabilities that allow him to localize the rebels in no time are magnified here because of the more compact running time.
Lensing by Theo van de Sande has the same polished finish as some of his work on U.S. productions (“Cruel Intentions”); the jungle scenes are a bit grittier without going overboard on the handheld camerawork.
Though none of the characters are particularly well developed, the African thesps generally succeed better at suggesting their characters’ humanity — or lack thereof — than their Dutch colleagues. Young Kintu, especially, is a find.