“The Mauritanian” Review

The Mauritanian (2020)

Based on the memoir Guantamano Diary (2015), this film tells the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi (played by Tahar Rahim), a man from Mauritania who was arrested on heresy some time after the 9/11 terrorist attack and then spent in total 14 years (from 2002 to 2016) in the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba without charge or trial. Jodie Foster plays his lawyer Nancy Hollander who is determined to see that her client gets a fair trial despite the extremely serious allegations against him, and Benedict Cumberbatch (12 Years a Slave (2013)) plays military prosecutor Stuart Couch who is more than determined to avenge the attack on America, especially since he knows one of its direct victims personally. Despite its slightly uneven narrative, this film by Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void (2003)) is an intelligent legal drama bolstered by the powerful performances from both Tahar Rahim (A Prophet (2009)) and Jodie Foster (Money Monster (2016)). The film, which undoubtedly will make many people uncomfortable, clearly shows the Guantanamo Bay abuses through the eyes of one innocent and sympathetic man.

The film begins in Mauritania just after the 9/11 terrorist attack. This was the time when everyone in America wanted to see any suspected person of this terrorism (now matter how slight was that suspicion) “burned”. Mohamedou Ould Salahi gets promptly arrested by the American authorities because they established a rather loose connection between him and the main perpetrators (involving his brother-in law and a satellite phone, none of which were ever proven conclusively). Salahi is then brought to Guantanamo Bay to receive his “rough justice”, and here the film is full of urgency and hectic movements on the part of the American government since it clearly finds itself under one immense pressure to deliver results: prompt arrests, prompt confessions and prompt trials.

The film lets its audience inside the notorious camp as lawyer Nancy Hollander (Foster) finds herself increasingly unable to perform her basic function of a defence attorney on behalf of Salahi. This is because of the state secrecy surrounding Salahi’s case which means Hollander cannot receive vital information regarding the guilt of her client and even at one point receives all the needed documents 100% retracted (concealed under a black marker). It becomes clear that Salahi is very much guilty until proven innocent, and not only his procedural rights are infringed, but also, it turns out, his basic human rights. Initially unbeknown to Hollander, the camp operates so as to extract confessions forcefully from the inmates, and employs sleep deprivation and torture to obtain the desired result. On that basis, some scenes in this film are hard to watch and, in them, Salahi is shown to be psychologically, physically and sexually tortured. These scenes also become one of the most potent in the whole film because they are filmed from the point of view of Salahi and the editing, especially sound editing, is very impactful as Salahi’s reality becomes mixed with his memories because of his metal confusion, fear and sheer exhaustion.

Tahar Rahim gives a very good performance which is full of integrity, and his character really comes across as just one ordinary human being who is trying to survive the hell that he was put in. Jodie Foster, who, if I may say so, is looking absolutely great at the age of 58, also gives a memorable, sensitive performance of a very unpopular attorney who is determined to ensure a fair and just procedure for her client. Benedict Cumberbatch would also have been good if not for his unnatural and forced American accent in which he tries to lower his voice to complete bass.

The weakness is that the narrative of the film is not always even, and Junior Legal Counsel Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), who works alongside Foster’s character Nancy Hollander, seems out of place in this legal drama. Woodley plays a young woman who finds it hard to come to grips with the fact that she helps to defend the potential terrorist, but, as it happens, her character’s inclusion in the story only raises eyebrows and proves awkward.

The incredible fact is that of some 788 people imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay in 2004 only about 24 were linked directly to Al-Qaeda. Mohamedou Ould Salahi was finally released in 2016 after spending 14 years and 2 months imprisoned without ever being charged with any crime. For the vivid dramatisation of his story, The Mauritanian must be one of the best films of the year and so the score of 8/10.

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