The Mauritanian Movie Review: Tahar Rahim Brilliantly Captures the Anguish at Guantanamo Bay
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Benedict Cumberbatch.
French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim shot into limelight with A Prophet, helmed in 2009 by Jacques Audiard. Rahim plays an 18-year-old prisoner sentenced to six years in jail for assaulting a police officer, and behind bars he finds himself a pawn in the faction war between Corsicans and Muslims.
In his latest outing, the French actor essays a Mauritanian, a film helmed by Kevin Macdonald and now available on BookMyShow Stream. Accused of being part of the Al-Qaeda terrorist group, Rahim’s Mohamedou Ould Slahi is picked up by the police post – 9/11 from a marriage ceremony in his native Mauritania.
After five months in a Jordanian prison, Slahi is whisked off to the notoriously infamous Guantanamo Bay detention centre, which in the film often reminded me of the kind of torture Nazis perpetrated in the concentration camps. Guantanamo Bay at the southern tip of Cuba, on an island surrounded by shark-infested waters, though under American control was kept outside the purview of the country’s laws – a system first put in place by President Bush.
The U.S military strongly believing that Slahi was responsible for training those who had piloted the planes and crashed into New York’s World Trade Centre, kept him in jail for about 15 years, despite him winning a reprieve after some years.
The Mauritanian is clearly a story narrated with huge empathy for Slahi. With the American authorities tracing a call made to him from Osama Bin Laden’s phone as a clinching piece of evidence, he becomes a prime suspect. The script credited to Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani and M.B. Traven (the latter a pseudonym for investigative journalist Michael Bronner) rubbishes the U.S. conviction that Slahi was treated appropriately.
There are enough references to the cruelty heaped on him, including the threat to get his mother over to the detention centre, and this forces him to sign a confession under severe duress and unimaginable torture.
As much as Rahim is brilliant as a man struggling through anguishing physical pain and mental agony, his lawyer, Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), is wonderfully marvellous. She is fully convinced that her client is innocent, despite angry protests from the American public that sees her as much a traitor as Slahi himself. But she pushes ahead. Her role may remind us of The Silence of the Lambs in which she comes face-to-face with a criminal mastermind. Unlike that movie, The Mauritanian does not give us the feeling that she is being manipulated. Rather, it is Hollander who reaches out to Slahi, fighting to find him at Guantanamo Bay, and later to legally defending him.
In the end, when Slahi tells the court that the way forward is not through a “cycle of terror but forgiveness”, we understand that the American system, all said and done, has a some amount of fairness and adherence to the rule of law.
A great example of this is when military prosecutor Lt. Col. Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) tells Hollander over beer that she has not seen what he has. He then resigns from his position, despite the enormous sorrow he faces of losing a former military colleague who was piloting the ill-fated plane.
The Mauritanian in spite of its length has enough power to keep us gripped, largely because Rahim’s and Foster’s performances are riveting. Once Rahim was touted as a younger version of Denzil Washington. Tahar keeps that feeling alive.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is a movie critic and biographer of Adoor Gopalakrishnan)