It's hard to look at David Oelhoffen's debut feature - an ambitious adaptation of Albert Camus' 1957 short story "The Guest" - without seeing in it a quasi-western about an upstanding citizen bound by a code of honour, having to deal with the dictate of his conscience as he is tasked with taking a criminal to the authorities. Even though Loin des hommes is set in Algeria in 1954, at the very beginning of the Algerian war, and there is much more to it than meets the eye, the way Mr. Oelhoffen sets up and handles what is essentially an outdoors chamber piece is very redolent of the Wild West - such is the desolate setting it takes place in, the antique way in which it all happens even though it's set in the middle of the 20th century.
The upstanding citizen, Daru (played by an accent-free Viggo Mortensen in French and Arabic as required by the script), is a French teacher in charge of a remote all-Algerian primary school, who does not see his pupils - or the natives for that matter - as "the other" as most other French colonists do, since he himself is of Spanish immigrant stock. The man he is charged with bringing to justice is Mohammed (Reda Kateb), a Muslim villager who killed a cousin over a land dispute.
Two outcasts thrown together by circumstance, Daru and Mohammed are apparently the last remnants of an idea of cohabitation and neutrality in a place rapidly descending into outright tension between Algerian independence fighters and the French colonisers and their military. As Daru, ever-reluctant to take a man to his death, and Mohammed, resigned to what fate has put in store for him, the two men strike a strong bond; their journey through the Atlas is shot with stately determination in a Figures in a Landscape way by DP Guillaume Deffontaines, making the most of the stunning landscapes of the Algerian mountains.
Mr. Oelhoffen is incredibly attuned to his outstanding casting choices; Mr. Mortensen, channeling the strong silent types from American westerns, imbues Daru with a masterfully suggested inner life, Mr. Kateb exudes passion and hopelessness in a delicate alternance. But despite the performances, an incredibly strong opening and an equally strong ending stretch, Loin des hommes' peripatetic mid-section seems to simultaneously over-embroider and over-elaborate on the film's central theme. The plotting isn't necessarily at fault, neither is the choice to let landscape and situation have as big a say in the narrative as dialogue or acting. It's just that the succession of episodes, like an odyssey where every step has a role to play and works towards a cumulative effec, lessens the general effect, gives it less of a flow and more of a series of tasks that need to be accomplished.
It's a flaw made all the more striking in a debut feature, which, for all intents and purposes, is what Loin des hommes is. But that doesn't take away from the film's many commendable strengths and its feel as a smart, existential meditation on man's relationship with man.
LOIN DES HOMMES
France, USA, 2014
Cast Viggo Mortensen, Reda Kateb
Director David Oelhoffen; screenwriters Mr. Oelhoffen with Antoine Lecomblez, from the short story "The Guest" by Albert Camus; cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines (widescreen); composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis; designer Stéphane Taillasson; costumes Khadija Zeggaï; editor Juliette Welfling; producers Marc du Pontavice and Matthew Gledhill; production companies One World Films in co-production with Pathé Production, Perceval Pictures, Kaléo Films and Jouror Développement, in association with B Media 2012 Backup Media, Indéfilms 2, SofiTVCiné and Cinémage 8
Screened July 28th 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon, distributor press screening