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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Black and White Mischief
by Donald Levit

Its title referring to whatever whites’ geegaws can be appropriated by the unnamed country’s rampaging blacks, White Material comes out of Claire Denis’ own French colonial African childhood. The week leading up to its theatrical release, the veteran director is also the subject of a full retrospective at the IFC Center.

Emotionally violent more than visually -- though that, too -- the hundred-five minutes is a depressing sequence of ruptures: broken lives, dreams, promises and politics; torn relationships and ties; severed roots, loyalties and childhoods. In a word, a candid canvas of small people destroyed in the larger chaotic upheavals of which we know little and understand less. In the novels of South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, blood is payment for theoretical causes but is in reality the result of both longstanding hatred and suspicion and of bad luck, wrong place wrong moment.

To rebel-inciting reggae radio, Yves Cape’s handhelds show muted color in a landscape made even more sere against a few splotches of green fronds, the whole further bleached by reddish dust and white mist from a colorless sky. Her pale strawberry redhead’s skin slightly freckled, the heroine for some reason wears not-new lipstick, a washed-out once-pink dress, and matching necklace and earrings whose blue butterflies are too small to attract color-attention, while bright native robes are not often here, either.

In this post-colonial changing of the guard, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) refuses surrender, though her personality is so undemonstrative that it is never clear why. Indeed, it is a demerit that hardly anyone’s reasons come out; but perhaps the point is that, the heritage of centuries’ exploitation and brutalization, indigenes and ex-colonialists are at the bidding of circumstances and not in control of themselves or their surroundings.

Helicopters drop Survival Kit boxes and caution that, peacekeeper French troops being withdrawn, whites are unprotected and advised to leave. Much of the story is flashback, a mix of the woman’s musings together with scenes she did not see, on the crowded rural bus that passes, but will not stop at, Café Vial Plantation. She is dogged about the five days needed to harvest and sell the beans, problematical in light of the flight of anxious workers in the area contested by the army, armed roadside thugs who collect safe passage tolls, and guerrillas of mostly boy and girl soldiers brandishing weapons from spears and machetes to automatics.

She is not helped at all by grown son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a weird lazy soul who is attacked and later attacks in unaccountable -- Maria accuses herself of having been a bad mother -- skinhead frenzy.

From all sides come opinions on the value of coffee money as against that of lives. Dead set against her plan is ex-husband and co-manager André (Christophe Lambert), who hopes they will all escape through his selling the place, for protection but barely any money, to the Mayor, Chérif (William Nadylam). For this, he must get the co-signature of his retired father, Henri (Michel Subor), who, in this region where everyone knows everyone else, shelters André’s other son, José (Daniel Tchangang), and the boy’s native mother, Lucie (Adèle Ado).

Not satisfactorily clarified is how to figure in Chérif -- later consoling Maria in his private militia car -- and, most particularly, fabled rebel commander and plantation worker’s nephew, the Boxer (Isaach de Bankolé), wounded, hidden in Maria’s place and, in fact though confusingly so, already “dead alright” in the opening scene.

White Material fails in not indicating motivations, in leaving relationships fuzzy, and in having center Maria oblivious to the colossal social, political, ethnic, economic, environmental and familial ills that surround her but of which she partakes, as well. From the essentially low-key film, we do not in the end know why these lost people are lost. On the other hand, this 2009 Venice, Toronto and New York Film Festivals selection is admirable in not sensationalizing but truly picturing what most fictions have not managed -- the misunderstandings, random slaughter, revenge, fear, and lack of coherence that plague the poor continent. Things indeed fall apart. 

(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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