THE MAURITANIAN – movie review

STX Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Writers: Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s memoir “Guantánamo Diary”
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Jody Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley, Langley Kirkwood, Corey Johnson, Matthew Marsh
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/12/21
Opens: February 19, 2021

Andrew - The mauritanian poster

If you are following the events of the days just preceding the inauguration of Joseph Biden as President, you will see a division into two camps. One group, believing that the election was rigged, might well say that the violence of the far-right extremists who took over the Capitol was justified, given their disgust with what they consider fraud. The other folks, hopefully the greater number, were horrified watching the only attempted coup of the citadel of democracy since the British set fire to the building in 1814. This latter group, the more educated Americans, might well think: “With enemies like these domestic terrorists, who needs enemies?”

And when you consider the way that the American armed forces have acted for years in our country’s prison at Guantánamo, Cuba (itself an example of U.S. imperialism), torturing prisoners by blasting them with music, waterboarding (which gives the hapless victims the feeling of drowning), humiliating them in at least one case by dragging a man around on a leash, putting them into stress positions, i.e. bent over, for hours, you may say as well: If this is American democracy, who needs enemies from authoritarian regimes abroad?

As pointed out in the epilogue of “The Mauritanian,” Kevin Macdonald’s new, exciting, bold and horrifying film, one prisoner, Mohamedou Ould Slahi had been held for seven years without evidence and with just one hearing in a D.C. federal court where he was judged not guilty. And would you believe that the Obama administration appealed, leading the poor man to be kept a total of 14 years before being released to his home in Nouakchott, Mauritania? Filming in Mauritania and South Africa among other locations, Glaswegian director Macdonald, known mostly for his “The Last King of Scotland” about events surrounding the Uganda administration of Idi Amin, offers us an indictment of an infuriated America uninterested in due process. On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, New York’s World Trade Center was attacked by two planes leading to 3,000 deaths. As a result, those charged with terrorism and held at our facility in Cuba would be denied a hearing, much less a fair trial. Seven hundred seventy-nine prisoners had been guests of the facility since 9/11. A mere handful were found not guilty and released.

The most interesting detainee would be Mohamedou Ould Slahi, principally because he wrote a book, actually four books, about his experiences there, adapted for Macdonald’s pulsating drama. The plot is unfolded with its center, Tahar Rahim, a gifted French performer of Algerian descent adept in French, Arabic, English, Scottish Gaelic and Corsican (he used his skills in the dynamic movie “The Prophet” about a prison holding people Corsicans mobsters and Muslims).

It doubtless took a man of exceptional intelligence to compose these tell-all books, and Slahi was exceptional enough to have received a scholarship in 1988 to study in Germany for a degree in electrical engineering. He joined the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, fighting against the Soviet occupation, a war in which the mujaheddin was backed by the U.S. So far so good. He trained with al Qaeda, one of the mujaheddin groups fighting a civil war, but instead of joining the fight he returned to Germany. His cousin al-Walid and other Qaeda members wrote to bin Laden opposing the planned 9/11 attacks. Slahi allegedly lodged three suspects for one night at his home in Germany in 1999. Not so good.

From what we gather in this film, the government had virtually no case, no evidence that Slahi was the prime mover of the 9/11 attacks or took part at all. Habeas corpus, the concept by which an arrested person must be advised of the evidence that causes him to be charged? Forget about it. The fury of President Bush from the first enemy attack in America since Pearl Harbor was joined by the American people, who seemed in no mood for giving those held at Gitmo the time of day. Hence the many years served in that prison camp by people held without charges.

You could not likely pick a better actor for the Slahi role than Rahim, who, judging by his multi-lingual skills comes across believable in his knowledge of English, learned largely from the guards, able to project his case to the movie audience. Serving as defense counsel, Jodie Foster takes the role of Nancy Hollander, determined to force the United States to live by the Constitution. She, together with an associate, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) who would serve as a translator from French (not needed given the prisoner’s fluency in English), take their time gaining the man’s trust, persuading him to sign documents that would give her the rights of counsel, insisting that there is an attorney-client privilege. Only later did it come out that Slahi confessed, insisting to his counsel that the confession was beaten out of him, to which Hollander replies that the confession could therefore be thrown out. Opposing them for prosecution is Stu Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch)—a British actor who does quite a job with a southern American accent. He seems less than convinced at any point that the defendant is guilty, and will ultimately do the right thing. When he demonstrates his uneasiness, he gets the same kind of hell from the military that Hollander receives from the USA-USA crowd, which cannot believe that an American can plead a case for a man who obviously (they think) had a big role in 9/11.

Director Macdonald occasionally breaks chronology, going back to the accused man’s happy life in Mauritania, the praise he receives from others for getting that scholarship to Germany, the plan opposed by his mother who believes she will lose him. A dramatic scene during the opening shows a cultural festival in a country that most Americans probably never realized could house some of the bad guys, terrorists found largely in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

Surreal tension break out during the final one-third of the film as we watch close-ups of the brutality of the military, sometimes playing good cop but in the end hitting Slahi with the most diabolical series of brutalities—the stress postures, the loud music, the sleep deprivation, even an episode with an army woman costumed in a cat mask humiliating him by sitting astride the man and “talking dirty.”

Jodie Foster may be the name that brings an audience to the theaters, but this is Tahar Rahmin’s movie. He is superb whether showing an ironic sense of humor, straining against his captors’ brutality, serving to convince us if we are not already believing, that some, and probably most of the current detainees in our wretched prison camp abroad are not guilty of the crimes with which they are…not even charged!

129 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – A-


PAPILLON – movie revie


Bleecker Street
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Michael Noer
Screenwriter:  Aaron Guzikowski, based on the books “Papillon” and “Banco” by Henri Charrière
Cast:  Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Yorick Van Wageninger, Roland Møller, Tommy Flanagan
Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 8/8/18
Opens: August 24, 2018
Papillon (2017)
According to the Britannica, Devil’s Island has a growing tourist population, a great winter resort.  How times have changed.  In previous centuries, even in much of the last one, the place was used by France which sought to get rid of some of the more dangerous criminals, but even Devil’s Island, if we believe the new film by Michael Noer, was a respite from the harsh punishments meted by the French government in French Guiana in the Northeast tip of South America. (Note that the UK used to send criminals to Australia, Australia sent some malefactors to Tasmania.)

Mention “Papillon,” and movie buffs will instantly recall Steve McQueens’ best role in the 1973 adaptation written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.  Prison dramas were big decades ago as they are now—my favorite being “Cell 2455 Death Row,” the 1955 drama which enacts the imprisonment of Caryl Chessman found guilty of the Little Lindbergh law against kidnapping.   If you see the most recent one, “A Prayer Before Dawn,” you’ll know not to smuggle drugs when you’re in Thailand, but nothing shown on screen outside of the two “Papillon” movies exhibits a country so brutal that it would send people not guilty of murder to French Guiana.

Filmed in Malta, Montenegro, and Serbia, “Papillon” does not have enough going for it to justify its 133 minutes’ length, just seemingly endless travails by the inmates of French Guiana, most of whom are not guilty of murder.  Call it, if you will, a road-and-buddy movie, but the road is not from Paris to Marseilles but rather from the French capital across the ocean to a land that for some reason the French still hold as a colony.

The road is taken by safecracker Henry “Papillon” Charrière after he is framed for a gangland murder in revenge for having kept some of the big rocks for himself to give to Nenette (Eve Hewson), his lady fair.  Escape is on his mind throughout his imprisonment which, sadly enough, will include seven years’ in the hole, or solitary confinement with total silence.  It’s not that Warden Barrot (Yorick van Wageninger) didn’t want the inmates.  He does tell them to go ahead and escape, and they will be shot in the jungle; and if they opt for the sea, the sharks are as hungry as they are.  Henry teams up with Louis Dega (Rami Malek), who is imprisoned for counterfeiting bonds, a fragile-looking bespectacled fellow who somehow has money on his person all the way across the ocean, money which could be used to hire a boat to escape.

In the most dramatic scene, that is, a scene that takes us away from the static photography of prisoners lining up, sleeping with little room between bodies, and one guillotine for a guy who murders a guard, Papi, Maturette (Joel Bassman)  and Celier (Roland Møller make an escape attempt notwithstanding Papi’s experience in solitary and the seeming hopelessness of getting away.

So far as the road-and-buddy movie idea, Danish director Noer, whose more imaginative “Son of God” about a dwarf looked upon as Jesus Christ by followers in the Philippines, wants us to consider this a love story.  And indeed, Papillon could have had a better time for himself if he did not attack a guard who was beating his forger pal with whom he has an almost sacred bond.

I would have expected Charlie Hunnam to look thinner about 7 years’ solitary confinement, and how did he keep his teeth when he was fed little more than soup every day in the dark silence of the most extreme punishment imaginable.  Were I there, I might try to kill a guard in order to be guillotined: life imprisonment with years of solitary is worse than the death penalty, which is why so many killers in America commit suicide as they are about to be collared by the police.

Hagen Bogdanski is responsible for the crisp photography, but if you had seen the original “Papillon,” not as brutal as this version but with more dynamic storytelling, you might wonder: why this?

Rated R.  133 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B-