You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Venice Film Review: ‘Far From Men’

Viggo Mortensen adds French to his already impressive list of languages spoken onscreen in this Algeria-set, Western-styled drama

Viggo Mortensen, Reda Kateb. (French, Arabic, Spanish dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2936180/

The existential questions Albert Camus raises in his short story “The Guest” translate exceptionally well to the Western genre in “Far From Men,” which stars Viggo Mortensen as a colonial schoolteacher tasked with transporting an Arab farmer accused of killing his cousin to trial. While the film isn’t as tense as “3:10 to Yuma,” nor energetic enough to overcome its niche status, writer-director David Oelhoffen’s idea of approaching this potent two-hander as an Algeria-set horse opera proves as inspired as it is unexpected. By treating the story’s epic High Plateau vistas the way John Ford did Monument Valley, Oelhoffen amplifies the moral concerns facing characters living just beyond the reach of civilization and law.

Whereas some actors have yet to master their native tongue, in this touchingly humane performance, Mortensen convincingly adds French to the already impressive list of languages he can speak onscreen — a list that includes English, Elvish (“The Lord of the Rings”), Danish (“Jauja”), Spanish (“Alatriste”) and Lakota (“Hidalgo”), for those keeping track. Coming from anyone else, such verbal versatility might amount to showing off. But despite his movie-star reputation and looks, Mortensen remains a remarkably humble screen presence, a trait that’s perfect for a part that demands considerable empathy from whoever’s playing it.

What slight trace of an accent Mortensen brings actually suits the role of Daru, who is described as the Algerian-born son of Spanish parents — nicknamed “caracoles,” or snails, because these settlers carried their possessions on their backs, viewed as outsiders to both the native Arabs and conquering French. But the character initially comes across more mysterious, defined by his decisions long before we learn his background.

Oelhoffen first shows Daru at the blackboard of his rural classroom — the lone building as far as the eye can see — where he teaches French geography to Algerian kids who will almost certainly never visit the land of their colonizers, but whose parents have already begun to demand their independence. Things have become dangerous for Daru here on the frontier, and though the film takes place in 1954, the year the country’s National Liberation Front began its bloody uprising, the world looks primitive enough that it could be set nearly a century earlier on the Wild West frontier.

Just as Daru is debating whether to stay, understanding full well that he does so at his own peril, a lawman arrives dragging a bound man (Reda Kateb) behind his horse. This is Mohamed, who could just as easily be a captive Native American: He is accused of murder and must be delivered to Tinguit, where a court will decide his fate — not that there can be any mystery how the case would go, since he has already confessed to the crime.

For Camus, tough choices reveal one’s true character, and here, Daru refuses to be responsible for dragging a man to his death. What he doesn’t realize is that Mohamed has a strategic reason for wanting to stand trial, since has unwittingly started a feud that requires the dead cousin’s surviving relatives to avenge his murder, which would in turn provoke Mohamed’s siblings to retaliate and so on in a vicious cycle. “Getting killed by the French is the solution,” he says.

And so Daru agrees to accompany Mohamed, insisting on treating him like an equal (or “guest,” per the story’s original title). Oelhoffen has no reason to rush their trek, inventing a few key run-ins with parties on both sides of the emerging civil war not only for dramatic interest, but to further explore the code of honor at play here: Daru, who fought as a reserve officer during the war, has tried to put violence behind him, and now he is called upon to kill if necessary in order to protect an admitted murderer. The pic doesn’t limit its penetrating character questions to the white man either, giving Mohamed a chance to prove that he’s not without courage or honor — a gradual, subtly acted redemption that takes Kateb from cowering animal-like at Daru’s mercy to standing tall and equal beside him by the pic’s end.

The short story concludes with Daru giving Mohamed a choice whether to turn himself in or to escape to the desert and live among the nomads, and despite this act of kindness (which Mohamed declines, continuing on to Tinguit), his relatives threaten to take their revenge on Daru. Oelhoffen opts to take things in a different direction, which could also be said of his overall approach to the region. Rather than implying danger at every turn, cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines’ stunning anamorphic lensing (so much more expansive than the boxed-in square framing of “Jauja,” which also follows Mortensen through desolate landscapes) shows a steady hand and innate respect for the country itself.

Equally original, the score forgoes the tacky exotification of other African pics, as composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis emphasize the characters’ moral tension through a mix of woodwinds and other unconventional sounds, including blowing across champagne bottles. And yet, in both its tropes and themes (including a detour through a frontier brothel), the pic remains a Western, with all the strengths and weaknesses that entails. It may seem too slow, too dusty, too far removed from the contempo world of men to interest large swaths of the audience, but those same qualities are what make it so effective for fans of the genre.

Popular on Variety

Venice Film Review: 'Far From Men'

Reviewed at Pathe screening room, Aug. 21, 2014. (In Venice Film Festival — competing; Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) Running time: 102 MIN. (Original title: “Loin des hommes”)

Production: (France) A Pathe release of a One World Films production, in co-production with Pathe, Perceval Pictures, Kaleo Films, Jouror Developpement, in association with B Media 2012 — Backup Media, Indefilms 2, Sofitvcine, Cinemage 8, with the participation of Canal Plus, Cine Plus, with the support of Porgramme Media de l’Union Europeenne de Developimage 2 de Procirep-Angoa, with L’Aide a l’Ecriture de Ciclic-Region Cenre, in partnership with CNC. (International sales: Pathe Intl., Paris.) Produced by Marc Du Pontavice, Matthew Gledhill. Executive producers, Souad Lamriki, Benedicte Bellocq. Co-producers, Viggo Mortensen, Olivier Charvet, Florian Genetet-Morel.

Crew: Directed, written by David Oelhoffen, loosely based on the short story “The Guest,” by Albert Camus. Camera (color, widescreen), Guillaume Deffontaines ;editor, Juliette Welfling; music, Nick Cave, Warren Ellis; production designer, Stephane Taillasson; costume designer, Khadija Zeggai; sound (Dolby Digital), Martin Boissau, Thomas Desjonqueres, Emmanuel Croset; associate producer, Romain Le Grand; assistant director, Jerome Briere; casting, Stephane Batut.

With: Viggo Mortensen, Reda Kateb. (French, Arabic, Spanish dialogue)

More Film

  • Tom Hanks

    Tom Hanks on Slowing Down to Play Fred Rogers

    Tom Hanks says that almost no director before “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” helmer Marielle Heller had ever asked him to slow down during a scene. But to play Fred Rogers, Hanks, who describes himself as a “wiseacre” with “a lot of energy,” had to pull back and find a stillness. “I had a [...]

  • Ted Sarandos - Netflix

    Netflix's Ted Sarandos Says Disney Plus Launch Changes 'Nothing' for the Company

    Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos claims he’s not getting distracted by huge competitors — like Disney — rumbling into the company’s streaming turf. The exec was asked what has changed for Netflix with the Nov. 12 launch of Disney Plus, which the Mouse House boasted as having signed up over 10 million users so [...]

  • Tribeca Film Institute

    Tribeca Film Institute Announces Winners for Aspiring Filmmaker Program

    Tribeca Film Institute announced the winners of their 2019 TFI Pond5 program funding aspiring filmmakers. Eight applicants, narrowed down from a pool of 200, were awarded with up to $7,500 in funding for their filmmaking endeavors. The program, in junction with media company Pond5, began the initiative last year to support indie filmmakers in “systematically-excluded [...]

  • Game Awards OrchestraThe Game Awards, Show,

    Game Awards 2019 to Play on 53 Cinemark Screens Alongside 'Jumanji: The Next Level'

    This year’s Game Awards, recognizing the top video games, creators and esports of 2019, is coming to the silver screen. In a three-way partnership, the Game Awards, Cinemark Theatres and Sony Pictures are teaming on a superticket program pairing the Dec. 12 live simulcast of the 2019 Game Awards in 53 Cinemark locations with a [...]

  • Frozen 2

    Film Review: 'Frozen 2'

    Released in 2013 to a record-scorching $1.29 billion, “Frozen” was such a huge hit for Walt Disney Animation Studios that many of its fans were probably assuming its sequel would play it safe and deliver more of the same: a sparkling 21st-century fairy tale in which a pair of wide-eyed heroines shrug off the need [...]

  • Variety New Leaders in TV

    Lena Waithe's Hillman Grad President Is Among Variety's New Leaders in Film

    Every year, Variety seeks to identify the next generation of leaders in the entertainment business, looking for representatives in the creative community, film, TV, music and digital. This year’s group has a heavy New York focus: We selected executives from forward thinking companies such as Spotify, Group Nine and Endeavor Audio, as well as writers [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content