Review: Far From Men (Oelhoffen, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Still from the movie Far From Men

Far From Men is French director and screenwriter David Oelhoffen‘s second feature film. This adaptation of Albert Camus’s story “L’Hôte” (“The Guest”) screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival this spring. It comes a full seven years after Oelhoffen’s debut, In Your Wake, which premiered at Cannes.

As in Camus’s story, the events of the film take place in Algeria during its fight for independence from France, though the political/historical aspect plays a much more prominent role in the movie than in Camus’s version. Daru (Viggo Mortensen), an Algerian of Spanish descent, lives a simple, modest life as a schoolteacher of Arab children on the barren desert plateau. His schoolhouse also serves as his home. Every morning, the children descend from the surrounding landscape to his cheery classroom. One day, a gendarme from the colonial government brings an Arab prisoner to the schoolhouse and tells the schoolteacher that, as the government is short-handed from fighting the insurrection, Daru must deliver the criminal to Tinguit, the nearest town, where he will await trial. The Arab man, Mohamed (Reda Kateb), is accused of murdering his cousin.

Unlike many of his compatriots, Daru is a moral man. He knows that murder is punished by the death penalthy, and the idea of delivering a person to his death is abominable to him. As a civilian, he tries to refuse his assignment, but the gendarme shrugs his shoulders and leaves the prisoner at the school. Now Daru must decide what to do with the man. Eventually, persecution from Mohamed’s tribesmen forces Daru into action. Their subsequent journey–full of misadventures and narrow escapes–leads to an unlikely friendship between the two men.

In preparation for writing this review, I decided to read Camus’s “The Guest.” Not enough is made of the adaptation process, in my opinion. A movie adaptation is not a standalone work; it is also a commentary on the original source material–whether that material be “real life,” a work of literary fiction, or a memoir. Maybe by changing the title Oelhoffen is trying to put some distance between his film and the short story it is supposedly based off of. Indeed, Far From Men seems more a response to Camus’s story than a re-creation of it. Though they share the same premise, the points on which they differ are significant and telling.

Oelhoffen probably knew there was not enough material in “The Guest” to make a feature length film. Camus’s story describes a few interactions that take place in a span of less than 24 hours. Much of the action is psychological–or, rather, philosophical. In the film, the story’s content corresponds to the opening sequence and the very last scene. To make the film version more entertaining and cinematic, Oelhoffen adds a sizable dose of physical action–shoot outs, chase scenes, and the like. (In her introduction to the film, the festival programmer described Far From Men as a 3:10 to Yuma taking place during the Algerian Revolution.) The friendship between Daru and Mohamed (Mohamed doesn’t even have a name in Camus’s version; he is known only as “the Arab”) is also an Oelhoffen invention. In short, all the Hollywood bits–the suspense, the feel-good, easy sentimentality–were added in the movie version.

Camus published his story in 1957. From a humanism perspective, perhaps he was ahead of his time. But reading his story in 2015 there is enough to make a sensitive person uneasy. Much reference is made to the prisoner’s “thick lips,” for example. And the constant reference to “the Arab” also offends our modern senses; a 21st century writer would have given him a name. And the 21st century writer David Oelhoffen does. He also makes other amends for Camus. Oelhoffen attempts to soften and humanize Daru and Mohamed by providing them with sympathetic back stories and motivations (though many of these don’t hold up under scrutiny). More significant is the transformation Oelhoffen’s Daru undergoes–from Mohamed’s unwilling judge and potential executioner to his friend and equal. We are, after all, supposed to like Daru, and we squishy liberals enjoy seeing how cultural exchange results in people overcoming their societal barriers and innate prejudices to achieve a new enlightenment.

But undoubtedly the most glaring change Oelhoffen makes is to the ending of “The Guest”–an ending that is central to the story’s philosophical questioning. Because Camus’s work is deeply rooted in his philosophy, existentialism, Oelhoffen is in essence changing the very character of the original material. Existentialism is anti-sentimental. It is righteous without being idealistic. Oelhoffen’s version loses those qualities. Perhaps he wanted a more life-affirming outcome for his characters. But I argue that Camus’s version is no less life-affirming; it is, however, more interesting, more complicated, and more sophisticated.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have read the “The Guest” after all. The movie version rarely shows up well against the book (exception: The Hours). It is better if I give you my impressions of the film, uncorrupted by my subsequent second-guessing: leaving the SFIFF screening, my feeling was that Far From Men was an entertaining and moderately thoughtful action flick. The “feel good” additions were glaring but still cheaply enjoyable. And they did, after all, make me feel good. Despite its shortcomings, the movie is a worthwhile watch for Viggo Mortensen’s competent acting as well as its harshly beautiful backdrop (the barren setting is one aspect of Camus’s story to which the film remains reasonably faithful). The rocky, unpeopled moonscape really does seem “far from men.”