December 1, 2010 -- “White Material” wallows so deep in the mud of its anti-colonial, anti-empire, western decadence sentiment it never comes up for air and slowly drowns upon arrival at its obvious destination. The mood of doom settles in quickly and keeps getting thicker as the story slogs forward. You know what's going to happen. It is announced over an hour in advance with lots of foreshadowing. You know what's coming isn't going to be pleasant, but the film makes you ... wait ... for ... ever to finally get to the inevitable, dreary conclusion. This film makes me think of the immortal words of Mr. Hengist (Jack the Ripper, played by John Fiedler) in the Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold”). He said something like “Die! Die! Make you suffer!” That what this movie does. Lots of understated blood and death, and we are made to suffer through it all at a very slow pace.
This French film with English subtitles is set in an unnamed African country. The early scenes show the main character, Maria Vial (payed by Isabelle Huppert of “I Heart Huckabees”), on the run from armed soldiers. The story is told in numerous flashbacks from that point. Later, the story advances to a later time line. The structure of the story reveals what is going to happen in advance. Also there are numerous warnings on the local radio. There will be blood. You know what's coming is going to be awful to watch, and it is. Just in case you were thinking the violence and killing in the film might make for some excitement, think again. It is mostly off screen and subdued. The intent, it seems, to turn violence into non-action, just as the film turns tragedy into a flat emotionless façade.
Liberals may like this because the film tells them just exactly what they want to hear, but don't go into this expecting to be entertained. This is the sort of art film that makes you suffer, allegedly for your own good. Trust the politically-correct filmmakers, they know what's good for you.
Maria runs the Vial coffee plantation. The plantation is caught in the middle of a chaotic civil war zone. The obvious thing to do is get out while the getting is good, and Maria is warned numerous times to do just that, but of course that doesn't happen, otherwise the story wouldn't be depressing enough. Maria's husband, André Vial (played by Christopher Lambert of “Highlander”), son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and father-in-law, Henri Vial (Michel Subor) seem to be of no help at all in running the plantation. Maria is determined to get the coffee crop in. All she needs is a week, but she doesn't have a week. She does manage to hire a crew of workers to pick the coffee, but the whole operation runs out of time.
André tries to sell the farm to a local politician, but Maria doesn't want to sell and neither does his father, whose signature is required order to complete the sale. Manuel is attacked by a couple of local kids and goes rogue, joining the local rebels. Eventually Maria also goes crazy and lashes out irrationally. Henri also loses touch with reality as the situation becomes more chaotic. Aside from the film's anti-colonial, anti-imperialist message, the whole story seems rather pointless. It is reminiscent of Conrad's “Heart of Darkness” in its tone. In a very short time, civilization falls apart and wealth and privilege become irrelevant. The pampered, decadent Europeans are unable to cope with the new reality of their situation.
The only thing that stands out in this otherwise insufferable movie is the acting of Isabelle Huppert. Her performance is captivating, and wasted, in this dreary film. This film rates a D.
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