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The Mauritanian movie review: A powerful drama that brings home the horrors of Guantanamo

The Mauritanian movie review: The Mauritanian is a grim reminder, at a time when the US is long past its Bush-Obama binary, that the Guantanamo facility still stands despite promises to shut it.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Written by Shalini Langer | New Delhi |
Updated: April 9, 2021 7:51:02 pm
The Mauritanian reviewThe Mauritanian is based on the 2015 memoir Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi.

The Mauritanian movie cast: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley
The Mauritanian movie director: Kevin MacDonald
The Mauritanian movie rating: 3.5 stars

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Truth may be secreted away behind two layers of high walls, guarded by the US army, in an island in the middle of nowhere, far away from the proverbial long arm of the law. Truth, however, has a way of revealing itself.

And so it does with Guantanamo Bay — that dark secret of America’s famed justice system that is now known to the world in all its horrific, waterboarded, hooded, orange overalls and chains, dogs and torture, detail. The Mauritanian is a grim reminder, at a time when the US is long past its Bush-Obama binary while the island facility still stands despite promises to shut it.

A true story, it is based on a book written by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, about the 14-plus years he spent in US custody after being whisked away in the midst of a wedding from his home in Mauritania, Africa, two months after 9/11. There are dots that point to a Slahi-al Qaeda link, as well as a phone call to him by a cousin from Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone. In that heated War on Terror in the days following the attack on US soil, he is described by one official as “the al-Qaeda Forrest Gump, a man who is everywhere”. No one has time for niceties such as examining if the dots add up to something.

It is in 2005 that an article in Der Spiegel (Slahi studied and lived in Germany) brought his fate, unknown to even his family, to light. And caught the eye and growing interest of a lawyer known to take up human rights causes, Nancy Hollander.

There are few greys in this film told from the perspective of Slahi, and shot largely in grim, dark rooms where he must hold out against the lies piling up around him. Hollander, her assistant Hendrick, and the lead prosecutor Colonel Couch must look for the truth buried deep behind files, boxes, redacted lines, national security walls, privilege panels, government committees, and confidentiality clauses.

In that, The Mauritanian is disappointing, squandering a chance to tell the various layers in this story that is unique but also universal in how the state and system can overwhelm an individual. There is no sense of where the system is coming from, and how it struggled to unravel the many threads untangled by 9/11, half-way across the world, in cultures it had little idea about — with some of the mess of its own making.

However, the excellent French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim, who plays Slahi, keeps you deeply invested in the man. Slahi never lets you forget what it took for that guy, once described as an exceptional student, seen as the great hope of his people, to keep his humanity as the walls closed in over 14 long years, including 70 days of intensive torture and three years of 18-hours-a-day interrogations. Slahi forms friendships, with a fellow inmate he only barely catches a glimpse of and a guard with a human touch, and holds on to his memory of home with its sand-filled deserts, camels, sea and bonfires. His body droops but Slahi finds the courage to work up a smile.

Director MacDonald gets only a few chances to shoot his protagonist outside his micro-cell — leaving which is itself a painful process — but when he does get one, both he and Slahi convey the freedom that a glimpse of the sky and a patch of sunlight can mean. One beautiful day, a football soars out of the air and lands at Slahi’s eagerly dribbling feet. The inmate who has kicked the football to him says his interrogator gave it after he had “given them a name”. “Omar Sharif,” he says, as Slahi laughs. “The Americans don’t know shit about anything that is not American.”
Foster as Hollander is characteristically steel and silk, easy to be moved, hard to be displaced. Woodley as her assistant and Cumberbatch as the prosecutor have much less to do. Hollander also underlines what makes The Mauritanian as much about the past, the present and the future (including for us here at home). The case, she says, is about the right of habeas corpus and not just one person. The Constitution, she adds, “does not have an asterix at the end saying who you can and can’t defend”.

Defending it, and not the government, she implies, does not make one “a traitor” — quick though the government may be to call you that.

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