Betwixt and Between: Far from Men

by |
04/22/2015 6:15 AM |
Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film

Far from Men
Directed by David Oelhoffen
April 24, 25 at the Tribeca Film Festival; Opens May 1

Far from Men is a film about a man trying not to take sides in the Algerian war; likewise it balances two distinct cinematic heritages. Its setting, in 1954, positions it at a watershed moment for the postwar generation that redefined Francophone cinema and political engagement, but in charting a journey across a widescreen landscape whose wide open spaces stand in for territory unclaimed by any governing moral authority, the film also showcases the ideological flexibility of the Western.

These days, if you’re going to make a neo-Western, it also helps to have Viggo Mortensen, whose multilingualism and counterculture aura make him a good fit for all sorts of postcolonial transpositions (Far from Men did the festival-circuit rounds at the same time as Jauja). Here, he speaks French and some Arabic as Daru, a fatherly teacher who plays football with his Algerian enfants when not drilling them in the geography of France, a country they’ll only see, if ever, as immigrant laborers.

Seen in long shot at the bottom of a dusty valley with a single green tree in its yard Daru’s one-room schoolhouse, where he also lives, is an oasis of civilization. It’s breached, inevitably, when he, like the homesteader of 3:10 to Yuma, is pressed into the duty of escorting a condemned prisoner to the nearest town.

The Paris-born actor Reda Kateb, who plays Mohamed, the only initially nonverbal murderer, has a wonderful face for a Western, a sun-baked, Warren-Oatesian face. The sparse gestures of both actors fit Morocco’s Atlas Mountains (standing in for the Algerian desert) as seen in writer-director David Oelhoffen’s frequent long shots, in which Daru and Mohamed are like specks of dust kicked up amid the arid brown rockscapes. Variously on foot and horseback, with each in turn in chains, the two overcome mutual resentment, filling in their backstories for each other as they meet obstacles: heavy weather and, instead of cavalry and Indians, French colonial soldiers and Algerian rebels (though the territorial ranchers need no find-and-replace). Everyone has their reasons, but Daru’s encounters with imperial and frontier justice (which echo forward as well as backwards in time in their consideration of the means and ends of violent uprisings) compel him to confront his own past. His ethnic heritage, we eventually learn, is similar to that of Camus, whose short story “The Guest” provides the film’s setup; similar also is his anguish at a conflict from which he has remained virtuously but impossibly uninvolved. As a man simultaneously disgusted at violence and capable of its execution, Daru’s actions ultimately take on the gravity of moral instruction (though it was this premise that was tweaked so effectively in another Western update starring Mortensen, A History of Violence).

Far from Men has a pace to match Daru’s rectitude, the better to appreciate the rhyming of each spare detail. After Mohamed is dropped off at the schoolhouse, Daru starts a fire for the night with a newspaper reporting on the war. Daru’s decency is shown in the food he sets out for his guest; that night, the host grabs his gun when Mohamed rises from his cot and walks outside, but relaxes after he relieves himself and returns to bed. The film is almost wholly unoriginal, but gathers a certain force of purity from its well thought-out pastiche of evergreen elements, like a really good farm-to-table restaurant.