The life of Daru, the hero of the fine new film Loin des Hommes (Far from Men), directed by David Oelhoffen and loosely based on a short story by Albert Camus, couldn’t be any simpler: a teacher living in a one-room schoolhouse on a desolate plateau amid the bleak beauty of the Atlas Mountains in Algeria in 1954, he teaches his students, chops his own wood, fetches his own water and cooks his own food.
Even in his isolation, however, he can’t shut out the rest of the world, which comes to him one day in the form of a prisoner who is dumped on his doorstep by the equivalent of the local sheriff, just one instance in which the film resembles the best American Westerns. Another: our hero, so impressively played by Viggo Mortensen, is a loner, a man of honor who has had his fill of violence, but has it thrust upon him by a set of circumstances.
Daru is asked to take the prisoner, Mohamed (Reda Kateb, in another excellent performance) to the nearest city for trial by the French colonial authorities. The young man, who has killed his cousin, at first seems hapless and pathetic. When Daru, to his great distress, is forced to kill a man to protect his young prisoner, he accuses him of being a coward and tries to send him on his way, but he soon learns that there is more to the story: Mohamed is determined to give himself over to the French police, which means certain death for him, to prevent a bloody feud that would end in the death of his younger brothers.
So they take to the road, on foot, headed for the city. During this uncommon road trip, they are threatened at every turn. First they are taken hostage by Algerian rebels, two of whom turn out to be World War II comrades-in-arms of Daru (“I love you like a brother,” their leader says to Daru, “but I will kill you if I have to”), then they are rescued by brutal French soldiers.
During this eventful voyage, we learn more about each of the two main characters as they begin to respect and care for each other, but we never really learn why Daru has chosen such a lonely lifestyle.
For all its similarities to American Westerns, Loin des Hommes deals with moral ambiguities in a much more subtle way. Daru is definitely a good guy in a white hat, but as for the rest, nothing is straightforward. Mohamed is an admitted murderer, yet, like Daru, we learn to sympathize with him. Daru himself, the child of Spanish immigrants, was despised as an Arab by the French when he was young and is now despised as a Frenchman by the Arabs. Should he side with the colonists or the rebels? An upright man, a mensch, he seems to be simply on the side of justice and humanity.
Loin des Hommes might have been titled Loin des Femmes, since women, except for a couple of prostitutes who make a brief appearance, are noticeably absent. This is one of its mysteries: Daru tells Mohamed that he has lost his wife, but he doesn’t go into any details.
Loin des Hommes is more than its story and characters, however: its cinematography is worthy of John Ford, with the Atlas Mountains looking every bit as impressive as Ford’s Monument Valley, and it has a haunting score written by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
The film’s ending left me wanting to know more about what would happen to this character who might have been played by Gary Cooper. A good man like him is hard to find.Favorite