Film Review: Legal Drama ‘The Mauritanian’ Submits a Fiery Reminder of American Injustice3 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
Mohamedou Ould Slahi fights for his freedom after being detained at Guantanamo Bay without charge or trial by the US government for years.
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi
Language: English, French, Arabic
Runtime: 129 minutes
Based on the memoir Guantanamo Diary published in 2015, The Mauritanian sheds light on one of the world’s harshest detention camps: Guantanamo Bay. It tells us the heartfelt story of the memoir’s author, a man whose faith in Islam and will to survive has triumphed despite torture and dehumanising tactics employed by the US military — despite no formal charge against him.
The film centres around Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) as he is taken from his home by the US government and brought to the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, for suspected involvement in the September 11 attacks.
After years in detention, his case caught the attention of criminal lawyer and human rights activist Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley). Together, they work on Mohamedou’s testimony and challenge the US government’s right to detain him in court.
The Mauritanian is not solely told through Mohamedou’s perspective. Through the perspectives of Nancy and Stuart, they unearth secrecy around every corner surrounding Mohamedou’s alleged involvement in 9/11. Through the sleuth work of military prosecutor Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), we come to learn of Mohamedou’s innocence, and of how the US military has been trying to hide from the public their brutal practices against the detainees.
While this approach was effective in formulating doubt on the US government and military, the oscillating perspectives sometimes made it hard to follow the plot. This, especially when Mohamedou’s story is also told through a series of flashbacks. The Mauritanian makes an effort to distinguish between past and present — namely of the use of wide shots to indicate the present — but this felt too subtle of a change. Perhaps there was room for the distinction to be further refined.
Where The Mauritanian succeeds is in how it humanises Mohamedou, becoming the film’s emotional anchor as it bounces between perspectives and time. We see an optimistic man twisted, transformed and tortured into solemnity and bitterness. What remains intact is his unwavering religious faith; the film is near merciless in showing how this is tested.
In a beautifully curated scene, Mohamedou meets a French detainee sceptical about prayer and the prospects of going home. But as Mohamedou dances to the sound of the waves in the nearby Cuban ocean, he encourages his fellow inmate to seek comfort in prayer and not give up. This optimism is painfully contrasted with the film’s later moments depicting Mohamedou’s torture: A uncomfortable series of extreme close-ups of his anguish, fear and confusion that boils into a nightmarish experience.
In the hands of a lesser actor, the sheer range of emotional complexities in Tahar Rahim’s role might have led to audience whiplash and exhaustion. Yet, he handles the role with engaging ease and finesse — perhaps even too engaging. Backed by strobing lights, deafening music, horrifying imagery and dizzying close-ups, he mercilessly brings audiences through Mohamedou’s ordeal. The film forces audiences to engage with the realities of Mohamedou’s gruelling experience, making it all the more thought-provoking.
The Mauritanian tactfully handles the complexities of neutralising terrorism and raises awareness on the misinformation and injustices surrounding the prosecution of suspected terrorists after the 9/11 attacks. Anchored by a phenomenal leading performance, The Mauritanian is a deeply moving film and a fiery reminder of the injustices still apparent under the US government’s watch.
The Mauritanian is now showing in theatres islandwide.