This is a movie starring Viggo Mortensen, set in Algiers in 1954 and based on a short story by Albert Camus. Watching it, I was conscious of Camus’ philosophy all through it, and was not that surprised when I saw an online interview with Mortensen, who maintained that both he and the director (David Oelhoffen) drew heavily on Camus’ beliefs and principles when formulating the character of Daru.
As a friend of mine (who had already seen it) told me: it has similarities with another French movie (Of Gods and Men) both in terms of themes and geography. I reviewed Of Gods and Men (Des homes et des dieux) in June 2011. Both films involve men caught up in war against their wills and determined not to take sides, even when literally caught in the middle.
Camus had experience both in Algiers and in the French resistance during WWII, so he’s well equipped to tackle the subject matter. Viggo Mortensen’s character, Daru, teaches French to Arab children in a very remote location. Later in the movie we learn he’s lost his wife (not told how) and that he was an officer in the army during WWII (we assume, as the movie’s ‘now’ is the 1950s).
In the opening scenes, Daru is given custody of an Arab, Mohammed, who killed his cousin apparently, and whom he’s very reluctant to take charge of for reasons of humanity as much as inconvenience to his vocation as teacher.
Watching this movie I was reminded of a dream I had many decades ago where I was caught between 2 gangs in a pub (can only happen in a dream) and told I had to take sides. I surprised myself by refusing, even though it made an enemy of me to both sides, but, of course, I woke up before I had to deal with the consequences. That dream has stayed with me ever since, because it’s a metaphor for many situations we find ourselves in where we are asked to choose sides. In this film, this situation recurs repeatedly for its protagonist and we appreciate that this is Camus’ idealism tested in the crucible of battle where life and death, loyalty and execution are only separated by the thinnest of margins.
I haven’t read Camus’ original story, but I know enough about him to know that this character represents an ideal that he would have aspired to, as do most of us, but for which we are rarely tested and even fewer of us would pass.
Its relevance to the modern world is how easily it is to demonise Arabs and followers of Islam, in an Us and Them world. It’s worth watching this interview with Mortensen (though skip the first 4 minutes, which should have been cut) because he explains better than me how his world view is not so dissimilar to the character's, Daru, whom he plays.