Sunday, 29 May 2011

White Material

Claire Denis’ White Material stars Isabelle Huppert as a French coffee plantation owner (Maria) caught in the midst of a civil war in a small African country. Filmed in Cameroon, it is actually based on recent events in Ivory Coast.

Maria is intent on getting her coffee harvested and ignores the warnings to flee for her life. With her son and her ex-husband, she stays behind while all the workers run. At the same time, the wounded rebel leader, known as The Boxer, takes refuge at the plantation. Nothing that follows is predictable. Nothing that follows is happy.

White Material is a dark, evocative and very intense film that relies on one great actress’s great performance to tell a story with few words. Huppert as Maria drives the entire film, though we are never sure why she does what she does. Is her determination a form of insanity (a word used more than once in the film)?

White Material moves back and forth in time, making it all the harder to follow the unfolding events, but this grim tale grabs hold of you anyway and keeps you anxious and engrossed throughout (though it is a very slow-moving film).

The violence in White Material is minimized and not graphic, but it is very effective, especially in a scene which shows what happens to the child soldiers who have joined the rebels. As the horror of the war plays in the background, there is a sense that Denis is sympathetic to the rebel cause. She grew up in that part of Africa and no doubt knows well the effects of French colonialism on the countries of West Africa.

Beautifully and carefully shot, White Material’s images and story will haunt me for some time. A very solid ***+. My mug is up.

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