Taking the conventions of Western films to different countries, planets, time periods or political situations is hardly new, but when it’s done well, it never gets old. The French-language “Far From Men,” aka “Loin des Hommes,” from writer/director David Oelhoffen, which transposes classic Western archetypes to the Algerian Civil War, is a terrific reminder of just that. It does not reinvent the wheel, nor is it a po-mo deconstruction of the Western myth or a pastiche. It is simply a great, traditional Western: the language and cultural details may be different, but the sparse elegance and moral conundrums are familiar and as resonant as ever. Based on Albert Camus’ short story “The Guest” and boasting a fitting yet never clichéd soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and a pair of flawless lead performances from Viggo Mortensen and Reda Kateb, “Far From Men” is a quietly grand, beautiful film.
It is 1954, just after the outbreak of the Algerian war of Independence, and Daru (Mortensen) is a schoolteacher in a remote rural area; a little schoolhouse, also his home, seems to be the only building for miles and his class is composed of the children of local goatherders. One night a gendarme arrives with a prisoner in tow. The policeman warns Daru of the approaching insurgent native Algerians revolting against French colonial rule. He also forces Daru, an ex-army Major, to take charge of the prisoner, Muhammad (Kateb), who having killed his cousin, is to be transported to the city to stand trial and inevitably face execution. That journey, the burgeoning relationship between the two men, and their encounters with friends and foes along the way (often friends who now wear the colors of foes, as Daru discovers that many of the men he served with now fight the French forces he nominally represents), forms the backbone of the elegant plot.
There are shades of many a classic Western here, and even some newer ones (the premise of the odd couple on a mission in which either or both may not wholly believe in reminded us of Tommy Lee Jones’ underseen “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” while the gradual defrosting of what is essentially a captor/captive relationship made us think briefly of David Michod’s “The Rover”). But “Far From Men” is refreshingly straight faced about its generic conceit, using genre conventions the same way classic films of old did, to comment on personal morality, loyalty and duty, not on other Westerns. It’s this sincerity that sets it apart from something like “The Salvation,” which in being another genre Western with a euro director and a Danish star (Mads Mikkelsen) might seem like an obvious point of comparison. But where “The Salvation” was pulpy, archly exaggerating Western tropes in an effort to convey its fondness for the genre, “Far from Men” feels like a compelling story that a talented director has decided might be best served by being delivered as a Western. Here the cart is firmly behind the horse.
It’s a slow-burn of a film, though not one that lacks drama, as the pair encounter a posse hunting Muhammed from his home town, then are taken captive by rebel forces and finally by the French Army. Caught between all sides and belonging to none, the disparate strangers are thrown into a situation that inevitably sees them become allies and then friends. This buddy movie dynamic is beautifully underplayed by both but builds believably and touchingly to provide the film, amongst its man’s-gotta-do-what-he’s-gotta-do ethics, with enormous heart. Mortensen, here speaking fluent French (those polyglot Danes!) is compelling as usual, while Kateb, whom we recognize from “A Prophet” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” is probably the film’s revelation. Sensitively written to avoid the obvious pitfalls of exoticizing his Algerian peasant background, the culturally-specific motivations behind his behavior and attitudes are gradually revealed, and there wasn’t a second when we didn’t believe him in the role.
It’s an intimate story of personal duty and the power of friendship that nonetheless unfolds against a huge backdrop, a contrast in scale that is a characterizing element of a great genre Western. And Guillaume Deffontaines’ luxuriant photography mirrors that contrast, expending just as much care in the lighting of faces and expressions as in the luscious widescreen desert and mountain vistas. If we have qualms at all, it’s with the film’s ending, which lands on a more hopeful note than Camus’ story does, and we can certainly see why Oelhoffen might have made that change out of love for the characters that we’ve grown to care for. But we’re not absolutely sure we believed it as much as what had gone before, as though elements of Camus’ nihilism, which would force a different decision to be made at the end, were somehow making themselves felt despite all the changes. And an epilogue-ish addition to the final chapter feels somewhat unnecessary when the story we’re truly invested in has already ended, though it’s compelling in its own right.
The film is not overtly political —there’s no specific villain as such, though the French troops, who at one point fire upon surrendering men, are certainly the more unsympathetic and undifferentiated faction. Instead “Far From Men” suggests that any institution, be it a government, an army or a tribe that forces you to choose sides is in the wrong, and a respite from the ceaseless tit-for-tat cycle of violence and revenge is the only possible when you renounce institutional loyalty in favor of loyalty to individuals. Daru and Muhammad, despite being ostensibly on opposite sides of everything —nationality, ethnicity, class, education, opportunity— develop a fellowship that runs much deeper than any of that. A film that yet again proves our beloved Western genre’s resilience and timeless resonance, and also its usefulness in framing histories unknown to many in familiar but illuminating terms, “Far From Men” never strays far from its genre, except perhaps in its ultimate subtle moral: Nothing, not honor, duty or your personal code, is so important that it trumps the value of your life. [B+]