Loosely based on a short story by Albert Camus, David Oelhoffen’s Far From Men integrates the French writer’s existential philosophizing with the hushed elements of a revisionist Western. This small-scale epic illustrates the internal struggles of one schoolteacher, set in the desolate mountains and deserts of the northern African terrain during the beginning of the Algerian War.
Viggo Mortensen plays Daru, the son of Andalusian Spaniards who settled in Algeria before the outbreak of World War II. A veteran of the war, Daru now leads a simple life in the foothills, where he works and lives alone in the region’s sole schoolhouse. His life’s simplicity is exchanged for absurdity upon the arrival of Mohamed (Reda Kateb), an Arab prisoner Daru is tasked with turning over to the French authorities for a trial a day’s journey away on horseback. The worlds of the reticent European schoolteacher and the intangible Arab criminal are thus melded while they cross rocky landscapes and encounter hostile forces from both sides of the conflict.
Mohamed openly admits to killing his cousin for stealing his crop: “If someone steals my grain, I die.” But he also understands that the reverberations of his crime extend far beyond the judgments of the colonizers. Meanwhile, Daru finds himself in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Does he turn Mohamed in to the French authorities, whose biased convictions will lead to unchecked punishments? Or does he allow the confessed but possibly justified criminal to go free, a freedom that will only to wreck more havoc upon those Mohamed leaves behind?
Mortensen delivers a reliably strong performance as the undemonstrative schoolteacher. Fluent in English, Spanish, and French, the actor masters Arabic for the role of a man who will forever be a stranger, no matter where he decides to call home.
His dilemma is proffered through a languid series of encounters with members of the opposing French and Algerian rebel forces. Tensions are insufficiently heightened, though, as both leads carry themselves with such uncommon lack of concern that the violence surrounding them almost seems like a nonthreatening nonentity.
However, the gorgeous widescreen cinematography by Guillaume Deffontaines and a tranquil score of original music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis elevate Far From Men far from the mundane. Oelhoffen directs with a reserved touch, allowing sequences to unfold without seeming coerced or calculated. Alas, this nonintrusive technique also lends itself to establishing an unduly slow moving pace, which only underscores the lack of conspicuous suspense. Though likely an intentional directing choice, the results are largely ambiguous, not unlike the philosophical choices faced by Daru and Mohamed.