Far from Men is based on a short story (Albert Camus' exceptional The Guest), and the film's only significant problem is that it feels like it probably should have been comparably short. This is a film with many virtues – sensitive performances, stunning locations, sumptuous cinematography, subtly revealing dialogue – but it's hard to escape the sense that the film is stretching 40 minutes of story out to 101.
The film begins in Algeria in the early '50s, where a humble colonial schoolteacher named Daru (Viggo Mortensen, A History of Violence) has been tasked with escorting an Arab prisoner named Mohamed (an effectively mournful Reda Kateb, Zero Dark Thirty) to trial. Mohamed has been charged with murdering his cousin, and will almost certainly be executed for his crime. Daru accepts the job reluctantly, and begins to feel traces of compassion for his charge over the course of their journey. Eventually, Daru learns the full truth of Mohamed's situation: he had the opportunity to escape, but chose to be captured by the French military in order to avoid triggering a family feud and a cycle of endless bloodshed. Daru decides that he wants Mohamed to live, but Mohamed has already decided that he wants to die.
This moral conundrum is a compelling one, but it's not quite enough to cover the monotony of the film's more uneventful passages. Admittedly, the movie is always a pleasure to look at: director David Oelhoffan and cinematographer Guillame Deffontaines make excellent use of the attractive outdoor locations at their disposal, finding a sumptuous halfway point between a vintage western and wistful landscape paintings. Still, that only gets you so far when there's so little going on, story-wise. There are compelling interludes from time to time – a visit to a brothel that suddenly makes the film feel like a foreign arthouse remake of The Last Detail, a fireside conversation, some encounters with armed men on opposing sides of a war – but these compelling moments arrive a little too infrequently.
The film's greatest virtue is probably Mortensen, who once again demonstrates that he is willing to tackle just about any sort of part in just about any sort of movie. This is the third film in a row that has found the American actor wandering across some exotic locale – Athens in The Two Faces of January, Argentina in Jauja and now Algeria in this film. As in Jauja, he doesn't speak a word of English over the course of the entire film. It initially feels a little strange to hear Mortensen's distinctive voice uttering words in French, but his performance is the sort of calm, committed, naturalistic work he's done so well in so many settings. This is fundamentally the story of Daru coming to a sad understanding that the world is full of unsolvable problems, and Mortensen does such a lovely, affecting job of selling that understanding (and selling Daru's unflagging desire to push back against that truth).
I might have been willing to forgive the film's general sluggishness if the ending had more power, but Oelhoffen makes the mistake of trying to underplay it. It's meant to be an artful touch, but it feels more like he's simply tossing a potentially powerful moment away. There's plenty of good stuff here, but it might have benefitted from the guidance of someone who wasn't afraid of embracing the tale's most dramatically gripping elements. In its effort to be beautiful and tasteful, Far from Men struggles to be memorable.
Far from Men
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Year: 2015