The Mauritanian tells a disturbing true story of torture, delayed justice, and perseverance. It manages to both shock and inspire in equal measure.
The Mauritanian is directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) and details the experiences of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, held without charge or trial for 14 years in Guantanamo Bay in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. It’s based on his true story and adapted from his memoir ‘The Guantanamo Diary’.
Despite the events being depicted in the film extending back over 20yrs, it’s a piece of history which will hit close to home for many of us now, as it was a significant moment in our recent lifetimes.
The Mauritanian stars Tahar Rahim as Mohamedou Ould Salahi, taken from his family, detained, and tortured due to an alleged association to Osama bin Ladin’s terrorist network. Jodie Foster is Nancy Hollander, the human rights lawyer who takes on the unenviable task of defending the alleged lead recruiter of Americas worse terrorist attack. Benedict Cumberbatch is Lt Colonel Stuart Couch, the military lawyer asked to take on Nancy and ensure Mohamedou never sees the light of day again. He has a personal stake in ensuring a conviction as he lost someone close to him on one of the 9/11 flights.
MORE See the full trailer here
The film is described as a legal drama and based on the emotive subject matter, I went in expecting sparks to fly when opposing council Jodie and Benedict eventually went head-to-head. I was hoping for an explosive court room clash, the likes of Jack Nicholson vs Tom Cruise, but this was less a ‘Few Good men’ and more akin to Nelson Mandela’s detention story. Director Kevin Macdonald has stayed true to the spirit of the book, telling a very personal tale of resilience and the ability to not only survive but overcome what appear to be hopeless and terrifying odds.
Even with the serious subject matter, the film has a gentle almost dreamlike colour pallet while maintaining a certain grit. This really accentuates the unbelievable nature of what is being done to Mohamedou. The idea that the United States, the self-professed world guardians of democracy and human rights would sink to a point where they would ignore their own principles to this extent is disturbing.
MORE Love powerful stories? See the latest reviews from the BFI Flare Festival 2021 here
Most of the important story details are told vja flashbacks, which slowly build a picture of Mohamedou’s life beforehand and the horrific details of what he endured during detention. Questions around torture were raised publicly in the aftermath of 9/11 but were quickly shut down at the time as it was accepted that ‘any means necessary’ to capture those responsible overrode any moral obligation previously held. Seeing the experience of a Guantanamo Bay detainee firsthand, seeing their humanity deconstructed, provides an extra level of complicit guilt and empathy for any of us who stayed silent at the time.
The film purposely leaves slight ambiguity regarding some of the details around Mohamedou’s alleged connections to Bin Laden. It focuses more on the question of our own moral compass. Is it ever right to treat another human being like this, regardless of guilt or innocence?
The performances are solid with Jodie Foster demonstrating why she has endured so long in the industry and remains one of the best working actors in Hollywood. Tahar Rahim manages to provide a multi-faceted performance, both delicate, strong, funny, and vulnerable. If this weren’t a true story, it would be hard to imagine anyone going through this experience and not come out full of hatred, seeking vengeance and retribution against his captors. Benedict Cumberbatch does an adequate job conveying a lawyer realizing he may be on the wrong side of a conspiracy, though I wasn’t sold on his accent, which did occasionally pull me out of scenes.
History is not only told by the victors but also by the survivors. Mohamedou is definitely a survivor and the ability to tell his story in a book and now see it brought to the screen may bring him some peace. Having said that, this is his personal story and a version of events with some elements stylized for on screen dramatization. While there are no suggestions these events didn’t occur, this is not a history lesson. The nature of torture and stress he endured over that period alone would suggest some elements may not always stand up to strict interrogative scrutiny. But that’s not really the point here.
The Mauritanian is a film that holds up a mirror up to society. A reminder that pain and anger are not the best paths to justice. The need to blame someone when something terrible happens shouldn’t overshadow our own values. Morality and human rights are more vital during times of war or conflict when our core beliefs are challenged.
As a film, it’s much closer in style and tone to a documentary. It’s not particularly exciting and the big conspiracy is exactly what we thought it was from the start. While there are certainly emotive points, the heartrate doesn’t change. There is no suspense built and no surprises. We enter the film already understanding people were tortured in Guantanamo Bay, held without trial and denied their due process. This is all well-known public knowledge.
What we have here is a firsthand account of one of these detainees, we get to see the torture rather than just imagine what it was like. And as terrifying and (creatively) appalling as some of the torture was, it did quickly lose its shock value.
The Mauritanian examines the ways we lash out when in pain and despair and the strength of the human spirit to not only overcome but forgive the worst atrocities. The film is held together by the brilliant and emotional tour de force performance of its lead Tahar Rahim with staunch support from co-star Jodie Foster. I would love to have seen a lot more court room in this legal drama but what we have is a powerful and insightful story about events in our recent history that have remained undiscussed for too long.