FAR FROM MEN (Loin des hommes), a film directed by David Oelhoffen, is more of an elaboration on Albert Camus’ “The Guest” than it is an adaptation. In Camus’ short story a French man is tasked with escorting an Arab prisoner to a murder trial in a far off town. Making good on his existential approach to fiction, Camus has his protagonist offer his prisoner the option of either going to the town on his own or try his luck with the tribe of nomads wandering in the opposite direction. The French man refuses to be a participant in determining the Arab’s fate only to be implicated by those seeking vengeance regardless. In the film, Camus’ protagonist Daru decides to go with the prisoner after all and what results is sort of a Gallic 3:10 TO YUMA, where both the man and his prisoner have to get to their destination while eluding a posse out for revenge. But instead of the rolling plains of the American West, our characters must traverse the rocky terrain of an Algerian desert. And instead of a pre-20th century setting, the film’s period is 1954 – the beginning of the decade-long Algerian War for independence.
FAR FROM MEN is a unique kind of western. And yet, it does contain the trappings normally associated with the genre. Daru is the good man who formally led a more violent life than he lets on. The prisoner, Mohamed, is gentler and more sympathetic than his crime would otherwise indicate. Rifles and pistols are the weapons of choice. And the natives travel by horse instead of car. But keeping one step ahead of their pursuers is the least of their problems as they have the Algerian rebel forces (as well as the French military) to contend with as well. If this were a fourth part of a Man With No Name tetralogy, Daru would be the Clint Eastwood character risking life and limb while having to deal with both the Yankees and the Confederates of the American Civil War.
FAR FROM MEN starts faithfully enough. Just as in Camus’ story, Daru is ordered to escort Mohamed – a man accused of murdering his cousin for stealing a portion of grain – but refuses to do so. He will not take part in another man’s execution. But Daru is a displaced character with no real country. Born of Spanish parents, he was raised in Algeria among the French expats. He now resides in the hills, teaching French to the local Arab children and is content with his life. And having been an accomplished veteran of World War II, he wants to leave the violence behind. But a new war is looming, one that Daru might find impossible to avoid. Once the murdered victim’s family demands restitution, Daru finds he has no choice but to protect his prisoner by getting him safely to Tinguit where he will await trial. This is where FAR FROM MEN diverges from “The Guest” although Daru struggles to convince Mohammed to take a different path throughout the film. But Mohammed feels obligated to meet his fate in Tinguit. He feels he has no choice. To run away could put the rest of his family in danger. He wants to satiate his victim’s family through legal means.
As Mohamed, Reda Kateb brings a sad but knowing countenance to his role. His character is not so much a helpless person but one resigned to his situation. Viggo Mortensen, however, really impresses as Daru. FAR FROM MEN is a French language film starring Mortensen as a French speaking character and it’s not like Daru is a man-of-few-words type. Viggo Mortensen has gone the multi-lingual route before, having played Dutch in JAUJA and Argentinian in EVERYBODY HAS A PLAN (you might also want to count his use of Elvish in THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy). And here he is just as comfortable playing a fluently foreign character as he did an American cowboy in HILDAGO. What’s more, Mortensen imbues a lot of compassion into what otherwise could have been another stoic, laconic hero. His Daru has not only experienced a lot of violence in his prior life, he apparently was quite skilled at it. And it turns out that Daru is probably the best protector Mohammad could have at this moment.
Oelhoffen approaches his direction in an almost classic way. There are no fancy editing tricks, ramped up set pieces or anachronistic CGI effects. It’s fairly old fashioned. Not quite in the way of something like David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA but more akin to the British produced period “epics” of the 1980s that were directed by Roland Joffé and Hugh Hudson. This is an adventure grounded in reality with the political backdrop to match. Although Oelhoffen stages a sequence that is both suspenseful and horrifying in how it depicts a confrontation between two opposing factions, action is kept to a minimum of evasion attempts and stand offs. Although Oelhoffen chooses to end FAR FROM MEN differently from Albert Camus’ story, the film’s conclusion evokes the spirit of “The Guest” even if it doesn’t follow its text faithfully. For, while FAR FROM MEN presents two characters as they attempt to take a righteous path, their good intentions might be met with uncertain reward… if none at all.