[WHITE MATERIAL screens Friday May 20th at 5:30pm and Satuday May 21st at 7:25pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]
Review by Bob Ignizio
Seemingly random bits of bric a brac are illuminated by a flashlight beam. The beam eventually settles on a body. “It's the boxer,” a man says into a walkie-talkie. “He's dead.” We then cut to a nearly naked man trapped in a burning building, pounding on the walls to get out. What all this means will only become clear later. As WHITE MATERIAL begins, director Claire Denis wants her audience thrown into a situation just as chaotic and confusing as the events her film will depict.
In an unnamed African country, a band of rebels is trying to violently overthrow the government. The white French landowners remaining from colonial days are caught in the middle. Most choose to cut their losses and leave, but Maria (Isabelle Huppert) opts to stay and bring in her plantation's coffee harvest. She was born in this country, and sees herself as a native with no reason to leave, a view not necessarily shared by everyone.
Even as the country descends into chaos, so does Maria's family and household. Maria's ex-husband André (Christopher Lambert), the actual owner of the plantation, has secretly made arrangements to sell the property to local mayor Cherif (William Nadylam). André and Maria's son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is a lazy good-for-nothing who goes off the deep end after being mugged by a pair of young rebels. Armed thugs set up a blockade on the road outside Maria's homestead, and wounded rebel leader “The Boxer” (Isaach de Bankolé) is hiding in one of the plantation's outbuidlings. As the situation continues to deteriorate, Maria's resolve seems less like bravery and more like insanity.
There are no heroes in this film. The Boxer, spoken of as some kind of legend, does nothing in the movie besides bleed while allowing others, including children, to fight and die in his name. As played by Huppert, Maria displays a strength and determination that make us want to get behind her, but her motivations are nothing more than stubbornness and pride. Maybe she does have a right to stay, but that hardly justifies the way she puts her family and employees in harm's way. André and Cherif may not be noble or heroic, but their pragmatism ultimately seems the least harmful course of action. 3 ½ out of 4 stars.