Left in a strange kind of limbo, partly due to a delay in finding U.S. distribution, and therefore a large swathe of the Western audience to whom it rather panders, Jean-Jacques Annaud‘s period sand saga “Black Gold” makes an odd addition to a festival line-up. Neither glossy nor starry enough to be a truly prestige out-of-competition addition, and yet far too mainstream in its sensibilities to sit comfortably alongside the smaller, artier, more obscure films these events are designed to celebrate, it lumbered through its Marrakech Film Festival gala screening powered mostly by regional interest (shot in Tunisia, co-financed out of Qatar), and apparent topicality (Oil! Arabs! Revolutions!).
But if “Black Gold” has any serious political point to make about the origins of current conflict in the region, it hides it very well under hokey family drama plotlines, even hokier soap operatic romance elements, and in the last third, bursts of strangely unmemorable desert-crossing, pistol shooting, army-raising derring-do.
It is a film that favours stuff-that-happens over ideas, plot over theme, so hold tight: there is a lot of plot – and probable spoilers: Prince Auda (Tahar Rahim) the bookish younger son of proud traditionalist Arab Sultan Amar (Mark Strong) and his elder brother are handed over as boys to be both raised as sons and kept as hostages by rival Emir Nesib (Antonio Banderas) – a gesture designed to secure the peace between the two warring peoples. Central to this peace is a mutual agreement to maintain a certain contentious stretch of desert as no man’s land, with neither kingdom claiming it. But years later when a brash stock character (Corey Johnson who, if memory serves, played exactly the same American-adventurer-blundering-about-in-the-desert-and-failing-to-understand-the-ancient-cultures-he-is-despoiling in “The Mummy“) discovers oil on that thar exact piece of land, it sets in train a chain of events that just keeps on eventing. Brothers and sons die, Auda marries Nesib’s daughter (Freida Pinto), defects to his natural father’s side and becomes a kind of guerilla leader, before rising up as a unifying quasi-messianic figure (there’s even a prophecy about him. All very “Dune“). And some falconry happens.
If it sounds overstuffed, it is, and we haven’t even mentioned the entirely unnecessary secondary love interest of Auda’s or the introduction of another brother character in Ali (Riz Ahmed). And ultimately, all this hithering and yonning, signifies little, only serving to distract from the themes and issues the film purports to explore: the titular oil is little more than a maguffin, and internecine Arab conflict is never satisfactorily accounted for: it’s just a bunch of dudes in robes vowing to follow Auda, or kill him, seemingly at random.
But, you know, whatever. These failings, this lack of depth, could probably be overlooked if the film succeeded in what it quickly becomes apparent is its real main aim: to entertain in a kind of boys-own, gosh-golly way, to be the sort of sweeping adventure saga that young boys of past generations might have stayed up late reading by torchlight beneath their covers (itself a horrendously old-fashioned image, we know). But it falls short of the mark here too, with pedestrian camerawork and creaky dialogue failing to capture the majesty of the desert setting or the turmoil of our many characters, and the episodic ‘and then they went there and did this’ rhythm making it difficult to be even mildly invested, let alone thrilled.
The actors, however, are largely game even if the script is weak. Tahar Rahim, so good in “A Prophet,” is a likeable presence, though his early geekery is rather too frequently signalled by falling over or fumbling with eyeglasses. Riz Ahmed works wonders with one of the less underdeveloped characters, who boasts a nice line in irreverant wit, though his role is, sadly, a small one. And the somewhat controversial casting of non-Arabs in Arab roles (again a contributing factor to the out-of-touch feel) pays dividends with the ever-terrific Mark Strong, but not so much in Banderas’ case: his cartoonish Emir has fun growling lines like “Truly, to be an Arab is to be a waiter at the banquet of the world!” but that one note grates after a while. And then there’s poor, unbelievably beautiful Freida Pinto. Her role mostly requires her to look out of partially shuttered windows so the dappled light plays fetchingly across her face, and this she achieves admirably. But lumbered with some of the scripts most egregious clunkers and paper-thin characterisation, she is responsible for a couple of the film’s biggest unintentional laugh lines.
But “Black Gold” is by no means unwatchable, and it has a puppyish desire to please that is sort of endearing. And while we’re feeling positive, the portrayal of Islam, while not exactly subtle (on multiple occasions we are reminded of how much more often the Koran mentions peace over war), has its heart in the right place and represents something of a first baby step forward for a conservative, non-Muslim audience. Auda is overtly religious, and gains a lot of his moral strength from close reading of the Koran; it’s refreshing to see the out-and-out hero of such a conventional film being able not just to be heroic and Muslim, but to actually draw some of his heroism from his religion. This alone could make “Black Gold” gently subversive suburban multiplex fare if it could find the exact audience it is currently denied; the film overall is so unobjectionable and operates on such a familiar, conventional level as to function as the spoonful of sugar that makes this modicum of religious understanding go down.
But a few decent performances and some good intentions can’t, in the end, compensate for a film so largely uninspired, especially when recent real-life events have so dramatically outstripped its mild and modest ambitions. It spans years, tribes, wars, and vast stretches of desert, and yet can’t earn itself the label ‘epic’ because with awkwardly archaic plotting and execution, not to mention portraying Arabs in a manner not so much racist as mystically, romantically Orientalist, it ends up falling between all available stools. Sadly, “Black Gold” is more instant relic than instant classic, and instead of ringing brightly with high adventure, its gears grind to a halt with the dull clunk of base metal, as it gets stuck in the sand. [C]
“Black Gold” is currently without U.S. distribution (apologies for the date previously announced — we were misinformed).