From the moment the words “Algeria: 1954” appear on the screen you know that these characters are not in for an easy ride. Based on the Albert Camus short story L’Hôte (English: The Guest), Far From Men follows the story of an ex-soldier-turned-schoolteacher Daru (Viggo Mortensen) as he escorts a Algerian man to his trial in a distant village.
The prisoner, Mohamed (Reda Kateb) has been accused of murdering a family member in his own village, and has decided to give himself over to the French authorities rather than face the vengeful brothers of the person he murdered. Fitting with the themes of Camus’ story, which shows how it is our most difficult choices that reveal the most about us, this choice catapults the two men into a story of hardship, danger and reluctant heroism. Each choice, from Daru’s initial hesitance to take on the responsibility of escorting Mohamed to the decisions of the resistance soldiers they meet along their journey, shows a different side to humanity and offers the viewer a diverse ranges of characters and characterisation that has been lacking in many recent movies.
Director David Oelhoffen (Nos Retrouvailles) and cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines (Love is the Perfect Crime) have also written an incredible love letter to the Algerian landscape, showing at once the immense harshness of the Atlas Mountains and their ability to grow and sustain life. The cinematography in particular does an excellent job of showing the distances the two men travelled with a minimum of time and effort – we get a strong idea of place and setting through just a few simple and stunning shots. Much of the way the film is shot owes a lot to early spaghetti Westerns and every aspect of the Algerian landscape, from the long, winding roads to the hazardous shale hills to the abandoned villages feels both authentically Algerian and almost timelessly Morriconian. When combined with the strength of the violence-and-vengeance narrative and Mortensen’s stoicism, the parallels between this film and the Western genre are unavoidable.
However, while the film owes a lot to the Western genre it moves beyond that and takes on a life and soul of its own. The nature of the individual choices we all face and the ways they shape us is a key theme throughout the film, with both characters forced to make difficult choices in the face of horrible circumstances. Mohamed’s choices make him into an outcast, and he knew full well the consequences when he made them; Daru exists on the fringes of society due to the nature of his birth and has had his choices impacted and limited accordingly. The two provide an interesting contrast as they negotiate the harsh terrain and dangerous encounters, each showing their own personal brand of courage, weakness, and humanity. They both choose kindness and selflessness in a world where those traits can be fatal; indeed it is Daru’s care for his young students (and later, for Mohamed) and Mohamed’s dedication and love for his family that put the pair in the most danger.
Mortensen and Kateb are both outstanding in their roles, adding incredible depth of character and a compelling aspect to the film that it desperately needed. The story is slow at times, and interrupted with sudden and violent flurries of action – a lack of attachment to the characters would have led to the story floundering. It doesn’t, though: the performances and the cinematography alone are enough to carry the story but the deeper themes of choice and freedom add enough layers to make this film one of the best I’ve seen this year.