White Material

White Material, a film by the French director, Claire Denis, tells the story of a white family living in an unidentified African country. Maria (Isabelle Huppert) runs a coffee plantation along with her husband, André (Christopher Lambert), her indolent son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), and her ailing father-in-law (Michel Subor). A civil war is raging in the country, and the French army has pulled out. The soldiers tell her to leave, but Maria is determined to harvest the coffee beans that are ripening. The workers on the plantation leave, but Maria finds new ones. A wounded man shows up on her farm. Maria gives him shelter. She is apparently unaware that he is actually a rebel leader known as “The Boxer” (Isaach de Bankolé).

Denis lived in several different African countries during the time she was growing up. Her films often deal with the relations between Europeans and Africans. White Material is about the futility of European attempts to colonize Africa. Maria and her family have lived in this country all their lives, yet they are basically outsiders. There is clearly a certain amount of self-delusion in the way they see themselves. Maria likes to think of herself as charitable and understanding, yet the workers on her plantation live in squalor. As one watches this film, one has a slowly mounting feeling of dread, because one can clearly sense the looming disaster that Maria desperately tries to deny.

The film never gives much detail about the civil war. We’re never told what the underlying issues are, or who exactly the antagonists are. I suppose this is meant to give us a sense of Maria’s isolation from the society around her. Unfortunately, however, it fits into a pattern in the Western media of depicting African conflicts as incomprehensible. I liked this film, but I thought it would have been stronger if it had given more background information.

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