The Mauritanian – Review

What does it take to break the human spirit; our trust in the justice system; our faith in humanity? Does everyone have the right to a defence? Rooted in angry, grieving and frightened post 9/11 America, Kevin McDonald’s The Mauritanian explores all of these questions in a film that is testament to human resilience and the truth.

Based on Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s (heavily redacted) best-selling biography of his time in Guantanamo Bay, the film poses some really interesting, and perhaps embarrassing, questions about how the US reacted to the Twin Towers terror attack. This was a really raw grief – a seemingly impenetrable nation struck down – and “someone” had to answer for it.

McDonald – meaning to or not – goes heavy on the irony of the “Gitmo” set up. There are signs warning that any harm done to an iguana will result in a large fine. There is a gift shop where you can drink beers by the sea and buy souvenir t-shirts. It’s a place where terror is a very real thing – for its detainees.

The disorientating scenes of torture have been described as something of a “fever dream”. It certainly feels like a carnival of the grotesque, complete with flashing lights and blasting music. Mohamedou is shown to be sleep-deprived, waterboarded, brutally assaulted, force-fed and raped, to name but a few “techniques” he endured during his 70 day stay in Special Measures.

Tahar Rahim has been Golden Globe-nominated for his performance as Mohamedou, and rightly so. The physical transformation alone – he is sinewy and wide eyes; utterly beleaguered and bewildered – is shocking. He allows rare glimpses of the charm, warmth and humour that Mohamedou (to this day) so readily shines with. But he is also a man who has had his faith (in his religion, in the justice system and in himself) shattered. He carries so much of this horror in his eyes; hungrily drinking in small drops of humanity wherever he can find it.

Equally, Jodie Foster as lawyer Nancy Hollander is tenacious in her quest for the truth. Foster is dynamic and engaging; battle-hardened by years of fighting for justice. I haven’t seen Foster in a movie for a while and her presence here is bold and refreshing, underpinned by just enough emotion to not makes things seem twee. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stuart Couch undergoes a neat character arc; Zachary Levi’s warm Southern drawl belies someone who is cold and unfeeling.

Despite the subject matter, this is not a film that is here to preach about right and wrong (on either side) or the ethics of a place like Guantanamo Bay – perhaps this is a crossover from McDonald’s objective documentary making career. Instead, it is simply telling a story about our humanity: how we lose in the way we are treated or the way we treat others and how we can regain it.

It’s also not – as some critics have suggested – a film about “good guys” or “conscience salving”. There are real moments of doubt, throughout, and it’s pretty clear that there have been atrocious acts of terror committed … on all sides. As Foster’s Hollander drily observes, the location of the prison is not to stop the prisoners escaping, but to stop the jailers being prosecuted.

The film is perhaps not as fast-paced as it could be at times – there’s no Sorkin level dialogue here – but it tempers hard-hitting interrogation scenes with moments that allow you, and the characters, to breathe.

Choosing to focus on the personal rather than the political, The Mauritanian contains some truly shocking scenes and on-point central performances. McDonald rounds it off neatly with some clips of the real Mohamedou – buoyant and joyous – contrasted with some hard-hitting statistics about life at “Gitmo”.

The Mauritanian is screening at the Glasgow Film Festival until February 28. Get your tickets by clicking here.

Mary Munoz
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