Daru’s position in this great war between Algeria and France is perfectly clear to himself. He was born in Algeria to French parents, grew up in a Spanish-speaking village, and teaches French to young Algerian goat herders. That’s all he wants to do: Teach. And hand out grain. No one else knows this, not the rebelling Algerians, not the withstanding French. Whenever Daru encounters someone from either side, there’s the chance he may not leave the meeting alive.
This steadfast loyalty to himself in the face of such peril is what makes Daru a powerful character in David Oelhoffen’s Far From Men, and what makes his decisions pivotal. Must a side be taken in a war? Are you automatically a traitor for sitting on the fence? The accepted standard during conflict is for everyone to pick a side, to be patriotic and vanquish the enemy. “I’m not against independence”, Daru says. Whose independence? Algeria’s or his? How does a man, stretched by several nations, place his allegiance in any one?
Daru’s world is simple. His school sits alone in the middle of a desert clearing, encompassed by hills and sandy mountains (his house is accessed via the classroom’s back door). His clothes dry in the Algerian wind. His shotgun, long and sturdy, acts as a security blanket. He has seen his days of war, fighting in the French army. Now life is tranquil, devoted to nurturing the next generation.
After class one day he is visited by a friend, who brings with him an Algerian criminal accused of murdering his cousin. The criminal, Mohamed (Reda Kateb), must be brought to the nearby town of Tinguit, where he will await trial and probable execution. He is shoved into Daru’s care, and the friend makes off.
The land of Algeria is dangerous, you see, with little cover from the scorching sun and very few places to seek shelter should it rain or should roaming villagers come looking for you with machine guns, which is why Daru refuses to obey his orders. The entire country is thrown into turmoil. Rebels hide out in makeshift caves. French soldiers patrol the desert tracks and mountain pathways. The terrain is rocky and loose; one wrong step and you could very easily require a pair of crutches.
Of course, Daru finally concedes, and the two embark on a treacherous trek across open country.
The French, as we know, were eventually kicked out of Algeria in 1962, after a series of lethal guerrilla attacks dealt the colonisers a blow they knew not how to handle. Far From Men takes place in 1954, at the war’s dawn. Algerians are still coming to terms with the idea of colonisation. There are perhaps not yet as many rebels fighting for freedom, nor are their methods as drastic as sending women and children into crowded piazzas carrying bombs, but the will is there. About halfway through the film, Daru (Viggo Mortensen) and Mohamed are captured by a rebel faction, led by an Algerian (Djemel Barek) who used to fight with Daru against the Italians. There is respite here, but not for the characters, who have to come to terms with the sides they’ve chosen, and why. It seems that Daru has chosen wisely, and has stuck to his decision, but in the grander scheme of the war his allegiance might not be so well conceived.
The heart of the story beats with Daru and Mohamed, who become like bedraggled friends forced onto the road together as a form of penance. They walk and talk. Sometimes they run from pursuing Algerians (Mohamed’s vengeful cousins have come looking for him). They camp away in an abandoned village and share stories that have otherwise enjoyed the luxury of privacy. We learn that Mohamed had to kill his cousin, and that his other cousins have to return the favour. It’s an unusual custom. We learn that Daru had a wife and that he’s still friends with the harlots who run the Spanish hamlet in which he grew up. Both men are driven in the plot by simple forces, but they are not simple men.
Far From Men is a sombre movie, anchored by performances that are not so much effective as they are deeply convincing. Mortensen, who is fluent in English and Danish, speaks not a word of either, which makes him an actor of rare value. Kateb trudges through the movie as if stumbling over his vocal cords; Mohamed is meek and respectful, yet when accused of being weak, he protests fervently. The two men dominate the screen for most of the film. We get to know them. They get to know each other. What happens when they reach Tinguit, if they reach Tinguit? Daru demonstrates his character. Then he has to deal with the consequences.
Best Moment | All of it.
Worst Moment | Nope.