‘Far from Men or ‘Loin des Hommes’ is a French production set in 1954, at the onset of the Algerian war of independence, and stars Viggo Mortenson as a former soldier for the French who now teaches young local kids in a ramshackle schoolhouse seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The central premise and most of the film is focused on two disparate men who become unlikely traveling companions across the harsh and arid landscape in a time of great uncertainly and brutality. It’s an arthouse film that offers the pleasures and juxtaposition of a well-paced suspense thriller as well as the thoughtful existentialism of a more personal work. That it is based on a short story, ‘L’Hote’ (The Guest), by Albert Camus (himself a renowned auteur of French-Algerian ancestry) is another reason for cinephiles to make sure they don’t miss this intriguing picture.  

It opens on a barren desert land, a valley nestled in between stark, brown mountains. It is 1954 somewhere in Algeria. A man, Daru (Viggo Mortenson), teaches young local Arab kids in French. The kids appear eager to learn and to come to the small, but reasonably well kept considering the circumstances, schoolhouse and they obviously like their teacher. But the place is a powder keg waiting to explode and Daru knows the outside world will catch up sooner or later. It comes in the form of a French lawman who brings a tied prisoner, Mohamed (Reda Katab) to the remote place. This man is accused of killing his cousin in a feud and has to be taken to the town of Tinguit, a day’s walk or ride away. Daru is expected to perform the chore, a task which he refuses initially. But during the course of the night, we see the simple humanity of Daru as he unites his prisoner and treats him like a fellow man rather than a bound captive. Something in the man’s demeanour strikes him, and when danger beckons the next morning in the form of riders with shotguns on horseback, kin of the murdered man asking for their prey, Daru fights back and decides he will fulfil the task entrusted to him. The two men set off on the hard journey not knowing that their destinies will change, with the shifts ever so subtle that they may not even realise it.

The two move through a land that can be unforgiving in different ways and forge a gentle, but strong, bond over the course of this time. There is harshness both from the natural world and the man made one which test them. The cold rain that assails them in the open desert may be evaded by finding a shelter with a roof over their heads, but the same cannot be send for the ever-present threat of the opposing rebel and French soldiers, each of whom present their own set of dangers. So it is that they lose their weapons and mounts and find themselves alternatively in companies of both rebel and French settler armies. For Daru especially this proves a tricky balancing act, for he has sympathies, or empathies, with both companies. Himself a former member of the French army during the war, but who considers himself of the land he was born into, Algeria, and supports their right to independence. He meets former partners in arms in both sides of the divide but especially in the rebel army. These men ask him his motivations and why he doesn’t join them if he believes in the freedom of the land. He answers that in his own way, by giving the gift of education to the kids around, he is doing his part.

The case of Mohamed is even more intriguing and shrouded in mystery. Daru, despite becoming unlikely travel partners with him, cannot understand the motivations behind Mohamed’s calm, meek demeanor in the face of all happenings. His face, for the most part, is expressionless, almost as if scared to let the shroud over his true feelings come free. He is tentative in opening up to Daru, but trusts him implicitly probably partly out of a feeling of helplessness in the face of the cycle of violence he has unleashed and which will keep happening unless he gives himself up to the French settlers. The pain is evident in a scene where he makes clear to Daru that it is not cowardice but love for his family which forces himself to give himself up to almost certain death at the French town they are heading towards. As the two move closer to their destination, some more tender truths about the two become apparent to each other and in their own way, one tries to help the other reach a form of closure.

The performances are remarkable. Both the actors, the internationally well-known Viggo Mortenson and the lesser known Reda Kateb, himself an actor of French-Algerian roots, give bracingly real performances that speak to their characters. They play inherently decent and likeable people who are caught up in a time and place that were in the throes of a difficult and violent transition, as were a lot of countries around the middle of the last century, which influence their actions to an extent and yet provide us testament to the strength and integrity of their persons when they make difficult choices only because it is the right thing to do. The author of the short story, Albert Camus, is a renowned name in literary circles, primarily known as a Francophone author but who has had his own difficult history with Algeria, his birthplace. During the war, at the onset of which this story takes place, he had mostly kept a neutral stance and attracted criticism for his advocation of a multicultural and pluralistic Algeria. The country has had a difficult history in general, with violent rebel reprisals finding a place even in their more recent history.

A stark movie of immense beauty set amidst the rugged terrains of the Atlas Mountains, but one which appeals to the most basic and personal need within us, that of the desire for human companionship, irrespective of how unlikely of a source it arises from.