BLACK GOLD arrives with a big swashbuckling whoosh of sand and a clatter of camels. Everything about this improbable spectacle, an old-school Persian epic based on Hans Reusch’s novel The Great Thirst, aspires to the condition of Laurence of Arabia.
You see those tanks in the distance? They’re real. You see those camels? Real. You see that cast of thousands? Genuine extras. Made from people.
The saga steadily works its way through a list that could have been compiled by Joseph Campbell or George Lucas. In a mythical desert space – Tunisia and Qatar do the honours – rival sultans Nesib (Antonio Banderas channeling Puss in Boots and Jafar) and Amar (Mark Strong) give up their claims to no man’s land with an exchange of hostages. The progressive, twinkling Nesib will raise Amar’s two sons, one of whom grows up to be Prince Auda (Tahar Rahim), a bookish boy with no apparent aptitude for the coming political strife.
There’s a girl, of course. Nesib’s comely daughter Princess Leyla is played by Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto, who does what she can with a flat damsel-in-the-desert subplot.
When Amar’s warmongering older son is killed off, it falls to Prince Auda to bridge the divide between his adopted father’s modern aspirations and his biological father’s traditional views. But now the American oilmen have started arriving with suitcases of money, there’s a lot more at stake.
There’s a lot to recommend this lavish, $55 million, entirely Arabfinanced production. The view is seldom less than awesome. The self-determined plot works as an antidote to the generally less than favourable Hollywood representations of the same culture. The alternative history that emerges – what if the Middle East could go back and start again with those oil reserves? – carries the scent of the Jasmine Revolution.
Still, there’s something unmistakably “international” about the finished product. There are a lot of competing nationalities in the cast list and crew, a conflict you can see in some of the more implausible onscreen pairings – Brits vs Spaniards vs French – and hear in the stilted Tefl-coated dialogue. Even A Prophet dynamo Tahar Rahim, speaking in his third language after French and Arabic, can sound like one of the more earnest Jedi knights.
There are occasional non-sequitors as well. If Princess Leyla, ahem, is the love of Auda’s life, then why does that desert girl transfix him during wartime? Oh. caption