The Mauritanian

Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster


The man at the centre of The Mauritanian, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, is a real person. Wikipedia spells his last name Salahi but its facts otherwise agree pretty closely with Kevin Macdonald’s film – picked up in Mauritania, extraordinary rendition to Guantanamo Bay, where he was held for years, suspected of being Al Qaeda’s chief recruiter.

Was he? Macdonald earned his stripes making documentaries and went big time with Touching the Void. Since then he’s had his biggest successes with films cleaving close to the factual (The Last King of Scotland, about Uganda tyrant Idi Amin), while the more overtly fictional The Eagle (Roman legions in Scotland) and Black Sea (submarine jeopardy) caused less overall excitement. The Mauritanian wants to have its cake and eat it – to be factually true yet dramatically intense – and does it by playing peekaboo with Slahi’s guilt or innocence.

Early on, Macdonald shows us Slahi deleting all the contacts on his phone. A later revelation – that he’d taken a call from Osama Bin Laden’s satellite phone – also seems to point the finger. This last in particular could easily have been cleared up in a flashback (there are plenty), but Macdonald leaves things vague. Suspicions are allowed to grow.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Slahi in Gitmo being questioned about his past activities. The prosecution got in to ensure he goes to death row is headed by buttoned-down establishemnt guy Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of whose friends was flying one of the planes that powered into the Twin Towers. Ranged against him is doughty unsmiling defender Nancy Hollander, an activist lawyer professional to her cuticles assisted by slightly gosh-wow rookie Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley).

Prosecutor Stuart Couch
Benedict Cumberbatch as Stuart Couch



Hollander’s “defence” of Slahi isn’t a defence of him at all but of a principle. It’s essentially a call to the US government to put up or shut up – charge Slahi or let him go – using the most basic legal principle of all, Habeas Corpus.

From here there’s a good slab of very familiar material – Hollander petitioning the authorities for its evidence, the authorities responding either with pages of material so redacted as to be useless, or attempting to swamp the defence with boxes of papers which can only be read by her and Duncan and only in this one secure room, an impossible task.

Crouch, meanwhile, is ploughing his own furrow. And while Hollander’s takes her away from abstract involvment in the case into a more personal interest, Crouch’s takes him in the opposite direction – from hot emotion to a much cooler appraisal of what’s going on at a legal level. The liberal Hollander’s story is the more obviously glorious and crusading, but Crouch’s story is also important and interesting and he is in many respects the hero of this tale, especially after he visits Gitmo to find out first hand what goes on there.

Crouch, Hollander, Duncan – these briskly written characters are tight, bright people with no time for messing around. Cumberbatch (voice slung slow), Foster and Woodley respond by playing them as written, crisply. Their interactions together are fascinating to watch. Macdonald has clearly picked up a thing or two from the walkie-talkie-ness of Aaron Sorkin’s dramas (from A Few Good Men to The Social Network).

Slahi, on the other hand, in the hands of Tahar Rahim, is expansive, warm, engaging, personable, a presence whose charm, and Rahim’s skills, are used to keep the glimmer of a suspicion alive. “The Forest Gump of Al Qaeda” as one interogator puts it? Still a possibility.

If you know Slahi’s story then some of Macdonald’s dramatic crescendoes just won’t work – I didn’t, so they did. More generally, The Mauritanian tells a story that’s no surprise – man arrested on no charge, held for years, confession extracted by water-boarding, sexual humiliation, sleep-deprivation, heavy metal, stress-positions and the full Rumsfeld-sanctioned bag of tricks.

Out of 749 detentions at Guantanamo Bay there have been only seven convictions. While putting a human face on one of those stories, the familiarity of what happens to Slahi, who remains opaque to the end, robs this politically important film of some of its dramatic power.





The Mauritanian – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


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© Steve Morrissey 2021






A Prophet

Niels Arestrup and Tahar Rahim in A Prophet

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

8 June

 

Death of the prophet Muhammad, 632

On this day in AD632 (10 AH), Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn Adb Allah ibn Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hashim, aka Muhammad (spellings vary), died aged 62 or 63. Muslims consider Muhammad to be the last prophet sent by God to restore the original faith of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Until the age of 40 he had lived a comparatively normal life – a married man with a job – but after receiving a visit from the angel Gabriel (Jibril) he started preaching the word of God, in particular that it was important to surrender or submit (the Arabic word for that being “islam”) to the Almighty. In a comparatively short time – between the revelation and his death was just over two decades – Muhammad managed to convert all the tribes of the Arabian peninsula to Islam, the decisive event being his march on Mecca with 10,000 men, which he seized with comparative ease in a near bloodless battle. Shortly afterwards Muhammad died.

 

 

 

A Prophet (2009, dir: Jacques Audiard)

At around two and a half hours, this isn’t a short film, but there’s not an ounce of fat on it – every minute tells us something new, cranks up the tension just a little bit more. It’s a prison drama with a difference. Two differences, in fact. We’re in a French prison with Malik (Tahar Rahim) a young guy in prison for an assault on a cop. He says he didn’t do it. He’s wet behind the ears and is subjected to the usual bullying, but over the years he works his way up from being a nobody to king of the hill. Standard stuff. A cliché, on paper.

The two differences are the fact that Malik is a Muslim (and his religion has a role to play), and there’s a touch of magic realism too, in the shape of the convict he murders early on to earn his stripes coming back to visit him, standing silently in his cell. The murder is worth mentioning, because it’s a bloody brutal affair which Malik is ordered to carry out by Corsican crime boss César (Niels Arestrup) the Mr Big Malik is eventually going to depose – though neither of them can see that one coming. César has chosen Malik as his hitman, green as he is, because he has a liking for his pretty looks and probably wants to get a hold on him in more ways than one. From this unremarkable and very familiar beginning, director/co-writer Jacques Audiard spins a brilliant story, where every character has weight, actions have consequences, where there’s a real sense of Malik playing a very long game to get to the top, and where César is eventually outflanked not by an act of prison barbarity, but by Malik’s superior intellect and learning. There are nifty paradoxes too – the brutal murder Malik carries out being the catalyst he didn’t know he was waiting for, the few short minutes he spends with his unwitting victim infusing him with an understanding of the purpose of life. The murder most ugly is a humanising event.

Arestrup, never a bad performance and particularly good here, is all eyes and tiny gestures, a hard cold wily man used to life at the top. For his part Tahar Rahim is good in a much harder role, turning from a total blank slate (he can neither read or write when he arrives in prison) into a man of education, worldliness and power. Knowledge as power. An Arab man as a hero. Intellect rather than brute force winning out in a prison drama. Audiard, who performed similarly remarkable acts of subversion in his two previous films, The Beat That My Heart Skipped and Read My Lips, does it again with A Prophet, a contender for the best film of its year.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The two lead performances by Niels Arestrup and Tahar Rahim
  • Best film of the year? Arguably
  • Stéphane Fontaine’s distinctive cinematography
  • A great rock and rap soundtrack

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

A Prophet – Watch now at Amazon