The Mauritanian movie review: Tahar Rahim film alternates between a dazzling true story and a generic Hollywood thriller
Despite Tahar Rahim's no-holds-barred central performance, The Mauritanian remains a simple retelling of a subject that deserves a little more nuance.
The year is 2021, and we have a courtroom thriller where a lawyer invariably ends up saying, "it doesn't matter what I believe, it only matters what I can prove". Said by Nancy Hollander (played by a no-inches-to-spare Jodie Foster), the line in The Mauritarian, is a hark back to many prized Hollywood films involving a hot-shot lawyer overcoming their voice of 'sensibility' to take on a seemingly unwinnable case against a mammoth institution. In this case, the United States Government. It also indicates director Kevin MacDonald's struggle to be authentic to the voice of his protagonist, a Guantánamo prisoner, who was illegally detained by the US Military for seven years before getting his first hearing, and giving his lead a Hollywood-sized narrative replete with a moral lesson at the end of the film that practically reads 'triumph of the human spirit' in bold letters. Speaking of Hollywood-sized narratives with moral lessons in the end, someone brings up Forrest Gump during an insignificant scene, while talking about our protagonist here.
Mohamedou Slahi (Tahir Rahim, going through a dream spell), a resident of the North-west African country, Mauritania, is picked up by the local police a couple of months after 9/11. A sharp student, who made his way to Germany for a comfortable life, Slahi has a checkered past. His cousin/brother-in-law is identified as a spiritual guide to Osama Bin-Laden and there are several phone calls and bank transfers exchanged between Bin-Laden's satellite phone, Al Qaeda's accounts and Slahi. To make matters worse, Slahi was also a Mujahideen volunteer against the Communist forces in Afghanistan. Is this mere coincidence? Or did Slahi take part in 9/11? That's the question American law enforcement try to answer, something the viewers already have an inkling about.
This was a time when American paranoia was at its peak, most United States law enforcement were working doubly hard to 'prevent a second 9/11', and their desperate pursuit for the culprits led them down a slippery path. Several men (like Slahi) were detained only on suspicion, without any hard evidence, subjected to severe human rights violations, and a significant number didn't even win back their freedom. Slahi, our titular protagonist The Mauritanian, did. The film based on Slahi's memoir, Guantánamo Diary, is a compilation of the testimonies of his time spent in detention.
Not content with only playing out as an account of Slahi's time spent in Guantánamo Bay, MacDonald designs the film as a legal drama, where Slahi's lawyers - Nancy Hollander and Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley, as a typical Hollywood upstart lawyer). Filing a motion for Habeas Corpus — a right guaranteed to any detainee to determine if their detention is lawful — Slahi's lawyers take on the United States govt to either produce any evidence for Slahi's detention, or let the man go free. On the other side of this courtroom battle, is Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, a crew-cut sporting Benedict Cumberbatch with a nasal Southern accent, representing the establishment and seeking a death penalty for Slahi's alleged role as a 9/11 recruiter. The lawyers have little personality of their own to separate them from the sea of similar characters doled out to us by Hollywood over the decades. Foster's Nancy Hollander is the stiff-upper lipped veteran, who likes to be precise with what she says and how she acts. Woodley's Duncan is obviously a warmer presence, bringing a dissonance to the relationship between the steely veteran and the idealist upstart. Couch's Southern twang expectedly warns us of the character invoking his religion, when faced with a particularly difficult decision to make, staring injustice in the face. The performances here, are serviceable for the parts, but also bereft of any quirks from outside the realm of Hollywood.
However, The Mauritarian is held together by Tahar Rahim's incredibly authentic performance. Adding little touches, like the way he smells a packet of McDonalds takeaway, to him breaking into a toothy smile when he hears about his younger brother having a second child, Rahim's performance is close to flawless. Depicting Slahi's mental state after having undergone inhuman torture, Rahim is superbly measured and committed to its retelling with as much authenticity as possible. As the flashbacks become more and more graphic, we even begin to see the strain behind Slahi's smile, something that seemed almost second nature to him during the early parts of the interrogations.
MacDonald's technical craft is impressive while showcasing the torture scenes, where he shrinks the screen into a box-like 4:3 aspect ratio, imitating the boxes in which inmates like Slahi were confined for months or even years. It's when the film focuses on the American law enforcement chasing their own tail during the 9/11 investigations, forcing confessions and 'names' out of even the most clueless seeming 'suspects', is when the film really sings. A track involving Slahi talking to another inmate, whom he refers to as 'Marseilles' (resultantly earning him the nickname of The Mauritarian), is one of the gentlest portions of a film that otherwise relies on broad-stroke filmmaking.
Unlike Scott Z Burns' The Report (2019) or Todd Haynes' Dark Waters (2020), Kevin MacDonald never quite seems interested in having fun with Hollywood playbook. Those earlier films, while being strictly Hollywood genre films, seemed to dig deeper to find a personality of their own. The Mauritarian, unfortunately, doesn't. Despite Tahar Rahim's no-holds-barred central performance, the film remains a simple retelling of a subject that seems to deserve a little more nuance. But then again, this was probably a conscious choice on director MacDonald's part, which probably prompts the question: would you rather be liked and watched? Or would you rather make an effort to be distinctly truthful? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.
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This is a film that has engaging action, punch dialogues and a star whose does the talking. But the story narrative is a disappointment