Review © Jane Freebury
Far from men but not entirely without company, a teacher lives and works alone at an isolated school. There are children, girls and boys of mixed ages, who happily attend his lessons, even though the content is set by distant colonial masters. In the Atlas Mountains of north Africa, a geography lesson on the major rivers of France smacks of irrelevance, but it is 1954 and Algeria is still in French hands. Though not for much longer.
Like some of the best movies, this was inspired by a short story. The Host—the title is a play on a word that in French can mean both host and guest—is the work of the great French-Algerian author and philosopher Albert Camus. It is also interesting to hear that this project has a family connection for the film’s writer/director David Oelhoffen. His father once worked as a teacher in colonial Algeria.
A peaceful, neutral existence is ruptured when Daru is ordered to deliver a young Arab man, Mohamed (Reda Kateb), to French justice in a nearby town. The unfortunate prisoner stands accused of the murder of a cousin, but he admits the crime and accepts his fate. Daru is put out by this unwelcome intrusion and impatient with the young man’s pitiful state, and also understandably wary of him. On their journey through the mountains, the prisoner explains that it is better to be dealt with by the French and put a stop to the endless cycle of revenge. It is a startling revelation, on which the narrative turns.
With its desert wilderness location and minimalist action, this is a film that might have emerged from the same existential 1970s roots as Antonioni’s The Passenger in which Jack Nicholson is a journalist – or perhaps an arms dealer – trying to lose himself in the African desert. Despite the guns and men on horseback in a struggle over right and wrong on the frontier, this is less a western than it is existential drama set in the shifting sands of the last days of colonialism. And it’s not a gun that has the final say.
As the two men travel together, mutually dependent in a hostile landscape, they inevitably bond, and sometimes even find a joke to share, albeit a rueful one. Details like those of the life that Daru (Viggo Mortensen) left behind emerge only when they must be revealed in this slow-paced, magnificent and timeless drama.
The ending of the film diverges from Camus’ story, making way for muted hope though Daru finds that neutrality, however strenuously sought and however one is distant from the fray, is not necessarily an option. Nevertheless on the empty spaces of the frontier far from men and their fractious tribal loyalties, it’s possible to find a shared humanity.