The Mauritanian | Review


Well versed in the world of documentary, Kevin Macdonald takes his real-life storytelling skills to the world of narrative filmmaking to tell the true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who spent 14 years in Guantánamo Bay without charge in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The Mauritanian is an adaptation of Slahi's autobiography charting his time while wrongfully incarcerated, starring Tahar Rahim in the titular role alongside Jodie Foster as Nancy Hollander, Slahi's lead lawyer. 

The Mauritanian has the signature steely aesthetic of most films in the genre, tainting the pearly island it leeches on. It highlights the fetishisation of prisons, noting that "one day this will all be a tourist attraction" where people will "walk around with their daiquiris". Macdonald seemingly condemns the way society obsesses over crime and punishment, and in return, wishes to paint a more brutal portrait of the secrecy behind the system.


After the arrest, the film starts with lawyers Nancy and Teri (Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley), eventually leading the focus towards the experiences of Slahi in Guantánamo, an understandable choice, due to the audience potentially being unfamiliar with the subject matter. However, doing this means we lose a chance to focus on his case of innocence. We are deeper into the film when the writers leave us with Slahi, exposing us to his vulnerability as a non-English speaker in an institution where he has to learn the language to communicate. There are tender moments as he bonds with a friend whose face he never learns, and we watch as he grows to understand the environment due to this relationship. This confinement is further highlighted aesthetically through aspect ratio, making for an all-around uncomfortable watch. 

The unfocused positioning of the audience confuses the tone slightly. There are seriously disturbing images that last for an abnormally prolonged time that arguably are necessary to capture the depths of Slahi's lived-in trauma, but whether those moments are fully earned is another question. With trauma-porn flooding timelines daily, it is worrying that there's a continued trend of "you have to see it to believe it". It appears that real-life to fiction adaptations haven't yet mastered the fine line of doing this without exploiting both the audience and subject matter. 

The redeeming factor is Tahar Rahim's emotionally charged yet understated performance. It feels like reality for him, and therefore most of the emotion lands as it should for us. Despite its faults, The Mauritanian does bring forth an important story that unfortunately remains as contemporary as it did when Slahi wrote his book in 2005. 

It appears that we are yet to learn, however. 

The Mauritanian will be available to stream on Amazon Prime from 1st April 2021, below are some talking points from Amnesty International. 

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