God As Her Witness: Isabelle Huppert plays Maria Vial, a French expatriate who refuses to leave her coffee plantation despite a spiraling civil war. Stubbornly focused on her own interests, she turns a blind eye to the escalating chaos — and the very real dangers approaching.
- Director: Claire Denis
- Genre: Drama
- Running Time: 102 minutes
With: Isabelle Huppert, Isaach De Bankole, Daniel Tchangang, Christopher Lambert, William Nadylam
In French with English subtitles
Set in an unnamed African nation convulsed by civil war, a new film by Claire Denis begins with death and ends with total psychic collapse. In between there are humiliation, looting, burning and murder. But White Material, an indigenous term for the trappings of white privilege, is a quiet, frequently beautiful movie whose plentiful violence is more implied than exploited — and whose subject is the delusions of a ruling class in free fall toward obsolescence.
Isabelle Huppert plays Maria, a French expatriate whose family has operated a profitable plantation for several generations and who is determined to bring in the coffee harvest despite being urged to evacuate as government forces close in to rout rebels holed up in the area. Now Maria's workers are leaving too, but the mistress refuses to accept that the game is up.
"We've been rooted here for years," she says, confident that her land and her family will be protected by her friend the town mayor (William Nadylan) — who, after all, has his own private militia. The fact that a rebel leader known as The Boxer (Isaach De Bankole, who starred in Chocolat — Denis' 1988 film about colonial Africa, not to be confused with the 2000 Lasse Hallstrom romance set in rural France) lies mortally wounded on Maria's property cuts no ice with the protagonist, who carries on rounding up her few remaining workers to bring in the beans.
Denis swamps Huppert in outsized shirts or outmoded dresses that accentuate both her tiny stature — at 57, the actress has the sharply angled body of an 8-year-old — and the monomaniacal intensity with which Maria applies herself to ignoring the catastrophe brewing around her. Like some crazy update of Scarlett O'Hara, Maria is a tough pioneer who's lousy at life; she's divorced, and has either coddled or belittled her indolent lout of a son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) into immobility.
And like Scarlett, she's poured her passion into protecting her land and what she sees as her heritage. No cardboard racist, Maria seems to prefer the company of her workers, whom she treats with wary respect, to that of her family. In the end, no matter what their color, everyone is a means to her ends.
Isaach De Bankole plays a rebel leader known as The Boxer, who is hiding out on Vial's plantation after being wounded.
Isaach De Bankole plays a rebel leader known as The Boxer, who is hiding out on Vial's plantation after being wounded. IFC Films
If Denis, the daughter of a French civil servant who spent her youth in various African countries, invites us to share in her admiration for this woman's fortitude and physical courage, she also wants to appall us with Maria's heedless self-interest, and to enter into her confusion about what is going on. Strategically disordered and fragmented, the action leaps around without apparent regard for linear time.
If that makes the war's chronology hard to follow, it also implicates us in Maria's distorted vision of what is happening: All that stands between us and this woman is hindsight, what we now know about the terrible outcomes of civil war in post-colonial Rwanda, the Congo, Sierra Leone. That may account for the multiple shots of the back of Maria's vulnerable head, dwarfed by the landscape in all its violated grandeur.
Perhaps no one could hang onto his sanity under such conditions. Yet in the end it's less the climactic madness and mayhem in White Material that sear the memory than it is the silent, balletic creep of child soldiers, grabbed out of school and sent with machetes and rifles through a forest to exact revenge for decades of repression. Our sympathies rest finally not with Maria or her son, retooled as a crazed parody of a Western skinhead, but with these children, so terribly warped by the ugly legacy of colonial rule and its inevitable collapse into chaos. (Recommended)