Home Film ‘The Mauritanian’ Review – A Scathing, Eye-Opening Critique of America

‘The Mauritanian’ Review – A Scathing, Eye-Opening Critique of America

by Ben Rolph
Tahir Rahim sitting in a dark interrogation room as seen in The Mauritanian.

Detained in Guantánamo Bay for almost a decade without trial or charge, The Mauritanian tells Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s story. It’s eye-opening, evocative, and truthfully told. The film stars the incredible Tahir Rahim, backed by a harsh, yet devotedly sincere Jodie Foster and the always-great Benedict Cumberbatch. Directed by frequent documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald, his input coming from a mostly documentary background adds to the sincerity felt throughout this film. After watching Macdonald’s incredibly impactful work, one is begged to reflect upon America’s injustices, especially to those which are hidden away. The Mauritanian is one of the most eye-opening experiences this writer has witnessed in a long time.

Based on the best-selling memoir Guantánamo Diary, the film follows Mauritanian native Mohamedou Ould Slahi in his fight for freedom after being kidnapped from his home in 2002. A defense attorney (Jodie Foster), her associate (Shailene Woodley), and a military prosecutor (Benedict Cumberbatch) uncover a conspiracy that goes deep into the soul of America. In a world where the “war on terror” rages, investigating the case of a suspected 9/11 associate becomes increasingly chaotic as they uncover dark American secrets. Their controversial advocacy for Slahi is tested at every turn as resistance piles against them, yet their persistence to aid the innocent Slahi ultimately uncovers shocking truths about what happened during his 14-year incarceration. 

The Mauritanian is downright immersive, it highlights the injustices in an authentically raw fashion. It’s immersion primarily comes through the film’s telling and casting. Macdonald’s collaboration with cinematographer Alwin Küchler is strikingly memorable. Notably, the flashbacks are powerful in their differentiation to the present. The aspect ratio shift and shooting style diverge to something profoundly intimate and bold. These choices add depth to Slahi’s character and, cinematographically to the spectator, it creates a deep-seated connection to Slahi and his terrible circumstances. Rahim’s performance conveys everything that needs to be portrayed. His persistence, his pain, and, remarkably, his hope is all there. The use of flashbacks visualizes Slahi’s past in a profound and impactful way. It slowly reveals more and more with one’s empathy building up, enabling a greater understanding of the key message of the film.

Jodie Foster at a courthouse door as seen in The Mauritanian.
Jodie Foster in ‘The Mauritanian’ courtesy of STX Films

The film emerges one into Slahi’s horribly inhumane and oppressive situation, conveying the hurt, but primarily the frustrations of the extremely one-sided perspectives and preconceived notions of terrorism thrown his way. It leaves the viewer with an altered sense of being and a new angle that begs Americans to watch. It is convincingly adapted, Macdonald brings a non-judgmental documentary-like approach to the film’s mystery. It contrasts vividly to typical documentary styles, but in terms of authenticity, it’s all there and is documentary-like. It awakens a sense of justice within oneself, with the biggest trigger being the shocking line that after the success of his trial, he was detained for a further seven years. A humanitarian crisis that has gone underrepresented and this film really pulls no punches in regards.

The Mauritanian is a must-watch, eye-opening film. It is one of the best, most thought-provoking experiences of this new year. Certainly, it will not be forgotten as its profound effect lingers way beyond the film’s final, but hopeful and endearing frame. Tahir Rahim puts on a revelatory act, not at one point does one question if he were performing or not. It’s as if he actually lived through all of this. 

★★★★★

The Mauritanian is set for release February 19, 2021

Follow Senior Film Critic Ben Rolph on Twitter: @THEDCTVSHOW

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