More movies than you’d like to know are reviewed in a daze, particularly out of festivals. Seeing and listening to Cannes coverage from the past week reminds me of this sad fact. Just think – if you were a filmmaker with your reputation on the line, would you want sleep-deprived critic to write about your movie? Worse yet, in a festival environment, it’s practically impossible to go back and revisit a film once the credits roll.
I watched “White Material” from my room with a deadline, albeit one set by the Houston Public Library for lending me the DVD. (It was two days overdue and starting to accrue fines – oops.) Claire Denis’ film struck me immediately with its defiant protagonist, Isabelle Huppert’s Maria Vial, a French woman maintaining a coffee plantation in a crumbling African nation. She’s the very embodiment of the country’s lingering colonial presence on that continent in all her stubbornness and impracticality.
The events of the film pay testament to her whacked-out priorities; Maria runs around town taking care of petty items while radio bulletins in the background narrate a tale of rapid national decay and impending military takeover. In fact, she seems far more concerned with the power struggle for her own land than the one for the country around it. Maria’s husband (Christophe Lambert’s André) seeks to take advantage of the crisis to take the plantation out from underneath her. This might as well be the end of the world for her, but as for the looming political crisis, she cannot understand why native workers refuse to come labor for her. The myopia is nothing short of stunning.
I quickly latched onto the main themes of “White Material” and fell into a rhythm with it. Then, the lateness of the hour caught up with me, and I began to drift in and out of sleep. Sorry. It happens. With about 30 minutes left, I began zoning out for small patches of the film. I could still sense the major plot developments and could see big changes reflected in the characters, though things did not quite add up.
Thankfully, before hitting the hay for good, I decided to check the film’s Wikipedia page to fill in the gaps of my knowledge. And WOW, had I missed some big stuff. Once I realized that, I quickly plopped the disc back in the player and rewatched the last act of “White Material.” What I saw completely transformed my view of “White Material” now that I realized the film was simmering towards a brutal boil at the close.
This gruesome climax depicted extremely violent acts in silent, oblique and reserved fashion. Denis takes acts we have all seen countless times and finds a way to render them shocking and impactful once again. Taking this into account, I can declare that “White Material” easily makes the cut for a “F.I.L.M. of the Week;” I sure am glad I gave that ending a second go with my full mental capacity.