Conceptual filmmaker Ala Eddine Slim’s debut feature hews to the presumptions one inevitably makes given the “conceptual” qualifier. Experimental in execution while addressing the hot-button topic of migration from Africa across the Mediterranean, “The Last of Us” follows one man whose unsuccessful crossing leads him to a semi-enchanted world in which he literally morphs into his surroundings. Handsomely shot by Amine Messadi and certainly unpredictable in where it takes the viewer, the no-dialogue film feels trapped in a rigid theoretical blueprint, meaning its best chances for exposure are in gallery spaces or avant-garde sections at scattered festivals.
Desert master shots designed to be mesmerizing kick things off, as two figures in the distance traverse the shimmering flat open space. They have no names: the press book refers to the main character as N (Jawher Soudani), though the closing credits list him simply as “Young man,” sharing the screen “Young man’s friend” (Jihed Fourtie). They finally reach an inhabited space and climb into what we presume is a smuggler’s truck, but they’re attacked and separated. The young man escapes, winding up in the industrial section of a port city, where he steals an outboard motor, attaches it to a rotting dinghy, and heads out to sea.
At this point Slim unexpectedly tosses in several poetic lines in the first-person on a black screen, such as “I vomited humankind.” They might work as pseudo-Morrissey lyrics, but unfortunately they become obfuscatory and pretentious when sandwiched into a film. The man doesn’t make it to Europe but instead winds up in a forest where he falls into an animal trap. After painfully climbing out of the hole, he’s suddenly clonked on the head by a wild old man (Fathi Akkari) dressed in a patchwork of animal pelts and looking like he stepped out of “The Clan of the Cave Bear.”
Here’s where the film switches into magical realism mode (what is it about forests that always seems to trigger this shift?): The wizened man tends the younger’s wounds, and the two wordlessly become hunting partners. The young man dons a similar fur quilt and gradually discards the trappings of so-called civilization, becoming one with nature. Visually the contrasts between the two parts work extremely well, since at the start, the figures are distinctly outlined against the landscape – there’s a striking shot of the young man and his friend in the desert night, an island of light in the pitch blackness – whereas in the woods, they blend with their background until they practically merge.
The meaning of it all can largely be reduced to the difference between rejecting one’s environment versus being a part of one’s surroundings. It’s a particularly salient point to make in a world where tens of thousands of Africans risk life and limb to flee to Europe, where the promised land they anticipated winds up either rejecting or ghettoizing them. There’s unquestionably room for more films on the topic, and it’s encouraging to find directors looking to expand our understanding of the migrant experience. Yet the characters in “The Last of Us” aren’t flesh and blood but concepts, not even accorded names: they represent ideas while being empty vessels, which makes the movie a self-indulgent intellectual exercise with nice images, rather than a profound meditation on one of the great problems of our day.
Given the absence of dialogue, sound is of heightened importance, and Slim makes intermittently interesting use of noises and snippets of music in an attempt to draw out some emotional response. An opening title explaining geometrical forms used in some of the graphics should be ditched, as the English translation makes no sense and results in mere head-scratching.