Saturday, November 20, 2010

Movie with Abe: White Material

White Material
Directed by Claire Denis
Released November 19, 2010

“White Material” is not a happy movie. Set in war-torn Africa, it follows Maria Vail (Isabelle Huppert), the kindly, stubborn, determined head of a coffee plantation. Facing the pullout of foreign troops and the rise of rebel child soldiers, Vail elects to stay behind and stand strong. One of the film’s scenes shows her walking aimlessly along a road with nothing in her arms, seemingly defeated but still determined to get back to her coffee-growing home. It’s a bleak, unflinching drama that offers a devastating look at lawlessness in a third-world country and the effects it has on its populace.

The film tackles a number of issues, but the most effort is spent on developing its lead character. Maria has to contend with unruly workers, dangerous situations, and her ex-husband’s desire to sell the plantation without her knowledge and consent on a daily basis. Yet none of this seems to faze Maria. She is an impossibly strong-willed woman with the courage to remain in a volatile area in order to continue doing what she believes in and loves doing. Huppert’s brave performance is entirely believable, and it’s her spirit that fuels most of the film since nearly everyone else is eternally pessimistic.

Yet there’s also something blissfully ignorant about the way Maria views the world. Part of the reason that Maria has such a hopeful attitude is that she sees the best in people and isn’t quite able to absorb and comprehend, at least initially, the fact that things are in fact much worse than they seem. Maria’s innocence comes from her persistence, and the inevitable decline and ultimate implosion of the situation is even more heartbreaking to watch as a result since Maria seems so fiercely prepared to keep on fighting for her right to exist and go about her life as she pleases.

The rest of the film unfolds around Maria in a slow, foreboding fashion that manages to work in just enough character and plot development before things really deteriorate and all that’s left is death and destruction. The cinematography is sweeping and magnificently able to capture both the grandeur and intimacy of Maria’s coffee plantation and her treacherous surroundings. The film gradually unfolds as its main character becomes more and more aware of just what exactly is going on around her, and it’s a depressing, heartfelt, moving experience that’s more than a bit tough to take.


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