Thrown out of Africa
White Material, drama, not rated, The Screen, in French with subtitles, 3.5 chiles
IWhite Material begins by dropping us right into the action but doesn’t let on exactly what the action entails or the context. White dogs run across a rural road at night, slipping through a flashlight’s beam like spirits. The beam of light then guides us through a dark house, where we notice a framed photograph of a white woman juxtaposed with the decorative African masks on the walls. We briefly see that it is a black soldier holding the flashlight and follow him into the next room, where a black man known as the Boxer (Isaach de Bankolé) lies on a bed, dead from a gunshot wound. The soldier’s company then sets the house ablaze. The only civilian alive at the scene is a white man with a shaved head. The soldiers stand in the doorways and hold him at gunpoint so he does not escape the smoke and flames.
After a brief title card, we get a reprieve from the darkness. A middleaged white woman named Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) staggers along a roadside. She tries to flag down a car but is left in a cloud of dust. The next truck is full of soldiers; she hides in the tall grass to escape notice. Finally, a bus stops for her. The seats are all taken, and she doesn’t wish to sit on the roof, so she clings to the ladder on the back. As the bus rumbles down the dirt road, she gazes out at the fields and mountains of her African home.
It is, of course, not her home. Nor is it even truly the home of her grown son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), even though he was born there and has never lived anywhere else. This is African land, and they are French colonists. Rumbles of war and violent upheaval ripple through the country, and the Vials are offered a chance to escape in a helicopter — to be lifted from the ground and returned to their real home — but Maria refuses to leave the coffee plantation where she has lived and worked for decades. So she remains, in a situation not unlike that bus ride: there is no room for her here, yet she stubbornly clings on, alone.
Director Claire Denis ( Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum) doesn’t explain why Maria pursues such a quixotic endeavor. It could be that she loves
This land is your land, this land is my land: Isabelle Huppert