Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) has come home to North Africa for a wedding. He’s been abroad, studying electrical engineering in Germany.
It’s November 2001. While visiting with his family, the authorities drop by. The Americans are interested in you. If you could please come with us, we’d just like to ask you a few questions.
If you are familiar with Slahi’s story or have read his 2015 book Guantanamo Diary, you know what happens next. He’ll spend the next 14 and a half years detained and subjected to all of the horrors the US state could come up with.
To his torturers he is Prisoner 760. But he is still Mohamedou. If nothing else, Kevin Macdonald’s new film The Mauritanian is determined to put a name and a face to anonymous casualties of the War on Terror.
Slahi’s account of life in Guantanamo is only one of the narrative strands we follow.
There are two others jostling for screen time. We get human rights lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) taking on Slahi’s case along with her fellow attorney Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley).
They act as our tour guides in the bureaucratic maze.
They take us through the culture around the legal-limbo Guantanamo—picturesque bus rides, the prison gift shops that serve beer, the surfing off-duty guards.
And there’s Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), the soldier heading up the prosecution.
Couch is soon folded into the film’s collection of well-intentioned Americans who slowly come to see the importance of righteousness. He is the liberal conflicted conscience.
“Someone has to answer for that,” a colleague says regarding the attack. “Someone, not just anyone,” the prosecutor replies.
To be honest there is too much of that sort of stuff. Someone sees the light and utters a line with such gravitas that you can feel the weight of the film struggling to get out from its own sense of self-importance.
Hollander offers at one point, “The Constitution doesn’t have an asterisk that says terms and conditions apply.”
This all pulls the focus from Slahi at the heart of the story.
Rahim’s grace and stillness convey Slahi’s pain with a specificity and empathy
The real light is Tahar Rahim who is extraordinary. There’s a wariness he gives Slahi.
His eyes dart whenever someone enters a room. And there’s a rawness as he’s consistently questioned, beaten, transferred from cell to cell, tortured, mentally and spiritually broken.
Not even a speech about tolerance and justice and the American way, delivered via video monitor, spoils the performance.
The attempt to provoke suspense and outrage renders Slahi’s story formulaic. And that is worse for the movie than the idea that there is something un-American about torture.
The torture scenes are shocking, except there isn’t really a new way to dramatise the violence. The depictions of the masks, waterboarding, shackles, and blasts of heavy metal are heading to exploitive cliche regardless of intention.
In contrast Rahim’s grace and stillness convey Slahi’s pain with a specificity and empathy.
The Mauritanian is ahead of some other pious political thrillers post 9/11.
And it is very a long way ahead of the pro-imperialist torture-porn justifications of 24 and Zero Dark Thirty.
That Guantanamo Bay is still open is enough to give the film relevance. And Rahim’s performance and Slahi’s story make it well worth watching.