Denis returns to Africa for White Material
by Gabriele Barcaro
In an example of festival paradoxes, last year, Claire Denis (a regular on the Lido) came to Venice with 35 Shots of Rum [+see also:
film profile], which won great acclaim as one of her most accomplished films. Many, quite rightly, would happily have seen it win the Golden Lion. Unfortunately, it was out of competition. A year later, the director returns to the Venice Film Festival to present, in competition, a less successful film, White Material, which left the press audience in deferential (but cold) silence.
True to her usual themes, the French director returns to Africa, once again revealing the special connection that binds her to the continent where she grew up, and continuing to explore complex family dynamics. The film is set in an unnamed country (“her” Cameroon, but recent news stories suggest it could also be Gabon), where the regular army is preparing to re-establish the order disturbed by the actions of the rebel guerrillas led by the “Boxer”.
While the embassies are evacuating their respective citizens, a proud and determined woman (Isabelle Huppert, once again playing a landowner in a foreign country, after The Sea Wall [+see also:
film profile]) is intent on staying where she is, out of a crazy attachment to the land where the Vials – her father-in-law and ex-husband (the latter played by Christophe Lambert) – have been growing coffee for two generations.
Far from being a didactic and basic example of social cinema, Denis doesn’t so much want to describe the scourges afflicting the Black Continent (even though the tragedy of child soldiers clearly emerges), as much as the indestructible ties that bind a “colonialist” to a country that rejects her, and (perhaps even more so) rejects her son, considered a foreigner even though he was born and raised in Africa.
But it’s precisely the character of the son, intended as the linchpin of the story with his post-adolescent rebelliousness, torn between two cultures and ready to take up arms, who turns out (due to some sudden character developments, verging on recklessness) to be one of the film’s weak points: as if the accurate psychological detail of 35 Shots of Rum had given way to overly constructed characters, slaves to the messages they convey.
Having started as an idea for adapting Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass is Singing (a project dear to both Huppert and Denis), the film – co-penned by the director and debut screenwriter Marie N'Diaye – soon became both a present-day and atemporal story. It nonetheless contains echoes of the Nobel prize-winner’s work, and even the experiences of Lessing’s brother, who, like the film’s protagonist, continued – against everyone’s advice – to work as a farmer in Rhodesia, even when safety concerns should have prompted him to leave the country.
(Translated from Italian)
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