Based on the Albert Camus short story L’Hôte, David Oelhoffen’s Loin des Hommes is a haunting, majestic, moral tale set against the awe-inspiring backdrop of North Africa’s Atlas mountains and the Algerian war of independence during the 1950s. Vitto Mortensen displays admirable linguistic skills by adding French and Arabic to other foreign languages he has already spoken on the big screen. He is more than ably matched by Reda Kateb, (Zero Dark Thirty, Hippocrate, Qui Vive) one of the most talented of the current generation of young French actors. Shot by Oelhoffen in the style of an American western reminiscent of the late John Huston, Loin des Hommes raises questions that resonate in today’s political climate. How can the Western world and the Arab world with their different cultures and laws live together in peace?
Daru (Mortensen) is an Algerian-born French school teacher living in a remote, region of Algeria. He has largely withrdawn from the world with only himself and his books for company. One afternoon, a policemen arrives at the school dragging behind him Mohammed (Kateb) who he hands over to Daru telling him he must be taken to the town of Tinguit to be tried for the murder of his cousin. Daru unwillingly allows the man to stay the night, but tells him the next day he is free to go. The following day Mohammed sets off for Tinguit determined to hand himself over to the French authorities and Daru decides to accompany him as his protector. During the arduous journey, the two men become unwittingly involved in the conflict between the Algerian freedom fighters – many of whom fought alongside the French during WW2 – and French soldiers. They are also being tracked by the family of Mohammed’s cousin who are out to seek revenge for his death.
From Camus original 12-page story which focused on the night the prisonner and Daru spend together at the schoolhouse, Oelhoffen has developed a captivating drama about the changing relationship betwen the two men. At first, there’s no doubt Daru is in the man in charge. But as the journey unfolds and Mohammed’s reason for wanting to be tried by the French authorities is revealed, it is clear the two men share the same beliefs. Both are good men forced to obey laws they no longer find valid. Dialogue is sparse and most meaning is conveyed by Mortensen’s trademark intense facial expressions and Kateb’s equally expressive body language. Avoiding the tedium of a film which tracks the main characters on an arduous journey across mountain and desert, Oelhoffen cleverly varies the pace with several well-timed action sequences. The only false note is a scene set in a brothel after Mohammed confesses to Daru that he will die never having slept with a woman. It’s a pointless, embarrasing detour which adds nothing to the story.
Elsewhere, Oelhoffen doesn’t put a foot wrong. Guillaume Deffontaine’s stunning cinematography which amply demonstrates the smallness of Man in the face of mighty Nature, is accompanied by a magnifient score courtesy of
Nick Cave and his fellow Bad Seeds band member Warren Ellis. As Oelhoffen himself has explained the score starts off as discordant and experimental with the musiciens creating new sounds – by blowing air across champagne bottles, for example – to becoming gradually more melodious as the friendhship deepens between the two men.
Loin de Hommes is a great film – as thought-provoking as it is visually impressive.