With two impressive performances from Tahar Rahim and long-time-no-see Jodie Foster, “The Mauritanian” is an old-fashion thriller drama very tough to watch, and that’s what it supposed to be. The film starts two months after 9/11, 2001, Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Rahim) is asked by the local police to come with them to be questioned by US authorities when he is at a wedding party in his hometown in East Africa Mauritania. Slahi is cooperative all along and comforts his mother by promising he will be back soon despite we can clearly see his concern and terrify in his eyes.

His suspicion is right. The next thing he knows, he is accused of involving in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and being one of the major recruiters. He then will spend 15 years in a detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Throughout a decade and a half being captive, he is continuously beaten, tortured, kept in isolation, and abused psychologically and physically, yet he is never officially charged with any crime with evidence.

Slahi wrote down and published his story in a 2015 memoir “Guantanamo Diary,” the book became an international bestseller and now adapted into a film by screenwriter Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani, and journalist Michael Bronner. Director Kevin Macdonald’s brutal direction sometimes makes the film formulaic yet delivers its political message effectively. Slahi’s life story of being a victim becomes a clear glimpse that there’s something absolutely wrong and scandalous in our legal system.

Nowadays, we all know that Guantanamo Bay is a lawless void where authorities can prison people for years without any actual charge. Prisoners are tortured and forced to make confession to something they have never done. Slahi’s case is just one of the most high-profile among other 779 prisoners (the end credits reveals only eight were convicted). Macdonald is not a stranger to controversial political topics and characters such as “One Day in September” and “The Last King of Scotland,” and the anti-corruption tale of “The Mauritanian” is his another thought-provoking examination that questions how a country and its people face the trauma. With waterboarding and forced sex and stay in an extremely low temperature naked, the tortures are meant to break the subjects, but here in the film, they are also breaking our justice system at the same time.

Presenting the years Slahi been tortured, the film jumps back and forth between different time periods. The structure is strengthened by the excellent cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler (“Steve Jobs,” “Hanna,” “Sunshine,” and “Ratcatcher”) who plays with aspect ratios to amplify the emotion. To be specific, the interrogation scenes are shot in 4:3, giving the feeling of being trapped visually. Plus, an even more excellent performance from Rahim. The French actor had amazed the world in Jacques Audiard’s 2009 Cannes winner “A Prophet,” which he also played a prisoner. Rahim brilliantly portrays Slahi with serious yet sweet expression, and delivers astonishing internal depth and hidden emotion.

However, there are in fact several doubts that indicate Slahi might actually have something to do with one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in history. His cousin was the head of al-Qaeda operative and once called him through bin Laden’s phone line, and one of the terrorists had spent a night in his apartment before the attack. Despite these skeptical facts, the film already presumed Slahi is innocent and doesn’t focus too much on the investigation.

After Slahi becomes a prisoner, we are going to spend most of the time (sometimes too much) with Nancy Hollander (Foster), an experienced human rights lawyer who decides to take Slahi’s case with her idealistic assistant Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley). On their opposite side is Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch with Southern accent, also the producer of the film) who first onboards as the prosecutor. Couch’s close friend was a pilot on United Flight 175, giving him the strong but conflicted motivation of taking down Slahi. However, after Hollander and Couch find out the dark truth of Slahi’s treatments in Guantanamo Bay, they both start to question themselves and realize what their country had done.

“The Mauritanian” aims to examine the guilt of America’s fighting against terrorism while pointing out the country has violated its own value during the fight. From President Bush to Obama to Trump, neither Republican nor Democrat presidents were able to lead the country to the right path. This is a respectful intention from the Scottish director who has less worry about being accused of unpatriotic against the public opinion. However, the film doesn’t put too much humanity into its story, so the characters feel like a narrative device eventually despite its great ensemble adds unexpected depth at some points.

In the end credits of the film, like so many adapted-from-true-story-films, Macdonald shows us footages of the real Slahi (finally was freed in 2016). If you had been prisoned and tortured for 15 years for a crime you didn’t commit, you for sure would be furious. But Slahi tries to be kind and forgiveness with prayers and smiles. Given everything he had been through, it’s incredible to see he then becomes friends with his captors. Nonetheless, the final scene that shows the actual footages just gives me an impression of how much the film has missed. 

Seeing the actual Slahi laughing, singing, and dancing in front of the camera indicates that Macdonald’s own version of narration fails to present a real human on a deeper, relatable level, and Slahi’s figure eventually gets lost and plain throughout the film. The core of “The Mauritanian” is the process of Hollander helping Slahi fight against the broken system, and how Slahi remains hopeful and stays positive. Despite Macdonald’s direction feels lifeless, the film still suggests to us that the true meaning of justice forgiveness instead of vengeance. That is how we can finally escape the circle of cold blood cruelty. 


Contact me at jiajinpin@gmail.com.  Follow social at @jjpin

  • Distributor: STX Entertainment
  • Production: Wonder Street, 30WEST, BBC Films, Convergent Media, Shadowplay Features, SunnyMarch, and Topic Studios
  • Director: Kevin Macdonald
  • Writer: Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani
  • Producer: Adam Ackland, Michael Bronner, Leah Clarke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Christine Holder, Mark Holder, Beatriz Levin, Lloyd Levin, and Branwen Prestwood Smith
  • Cast: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Zachary Levi
  • “The Mauritanian” released in theaters and onDemand Feb. 12, 2021

Read the review in Chinese

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