Critic's Pick: White Material

Dressed in a light pink frock and standing on a dusty road in an unnamed African country, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), the central character in the French art-house film White Material, appears spellbound by the changes happening in a world she once thought of as her home.

Maria, who lives with her family on their failing coffee plantation, is Caucasian with reddish-blonde hair and blue eyes. Despite her desire to blend in with her surroundings, her presence is obvious. With a civil war pitting rebel soldiers against the government militia, the country has become increasingly dangerous for anyone to stay. Maria’s fighting spirit won’t let her run, even after her entire workforce abandons the crop.

“Coffee’s coffee; not worth dying for,” her foreman says before packing up his belongings and joining the exodus. For Maria, it’s not that easy.

Like most of her past work, the delivery of French filmmaker Claire Denis, who was actually raised in a French-colonized Africa, is focused more on the picturesque imagery and details of the landscape than on the finer points of a sometimes vague narrative.

Only a hint of a secondary storyline featuring a rebel hero known as The Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé), who is hiding at Maria’s plantation, is shared before it’s forgotten (a metaphor for Maria’s own ambiguous political position?). Maria’s apathetic son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), too, is briefly plucked from his comfort zone before his character is engulfed by the turmoil without much explanation.

While Denis avoids concrete answers in her allegorical work, the consistently despairing tone is remarkable, as is Huppert’s understated and absorbing performance as a woman lost in deep-seated denial and facing an inevitable end. The hopelessness is heavy in White Material. Maria’s strength is unmistakable, but it would be a tough task for anyone to carry the load alone.

Dir. Claire Denis; writ. Claire Denis and Marie N’Diaye; feat. Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach De Bankolé, William Nadylam, Adèle Ado, Ali Barkai (NR)