The Mauritanian – Tahar Rahim shines in Kevin MacDonald’s unflinching legal drama

The Mauritanian premieres on Amazon Prime April 1st 2021

Legal dramas can often be a tricky balancing act between entertainment and education, especially when you’re working from something like a memoir. Something can be entertaining, but if it’s more fiction than fact, you’ve undermined what you’re trying to explore. Ultimately, you’re trying to bring a story to life, to extract the latent content so it may resonate with others. The Mauritanian not only extracts but imbues its content with a creative shine that invigorates its material. 

Based on Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s memoir, Guantanamo Diary, we follow Mohamedou’s (Tahar Rahim) story from unofficial imprisonment to his eventual attempt at clarifying his innocence. His case picked up by human rights lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster). But, just as she builds a case for Salahi, Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) begins to make a case against, setting our legal stage. The cold open tells us that no matter how big and flashy the stars, our story’s core is Tahar Rahim; his performance compelling from his first sentence. Rahim exhibits a complex battle of emotions as his voice warbles; his gestures powerful. His unflinching performance of emotional fracture makes him one of the most significant Oscar snubs of recent memory, as he captures Salahi’s existential fatigue against his view of Hollander’s impossible offer at freedom.

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Kevin MacDonald’s decision to structure the film’s development around Salahi’s memories allows for an emotional depth that doesn’t slow the pacing nor unravel the complexity. If anything, the more memories we explore, the more questions we have. 

The film sets up a strong polemic between Hollander and Couch’s motivations; one is professionally driven whilst the other is fuelled by emotional desire, giving us a constant dramatic tension that only tightens with every discovery. Their oppositional drives are a stimulating reflection of many political issues today. Couch’s story especially demonstrates the tensions between this idea of absolute moral justice and passive acceptance of a biased narrative – MacDonald places him on the fine line between active individual investigation and passive institutional participation, allowing him to sway back and forth as he’s pulled in both directions. One of the difficulties of legal dramas can be keeping the dramatic tension alight. Still, MacDonald does this with ease through inverting both Hollander and Couch’s stories – just as Couch becomes uncertain in his institution, Hollander finds evidence of Salahi’s potential guilt, draping everything in a continuous ambiguity of questions with no answers.

The Mauritanian’s strong script provides a basis for formal experimentation and creativity that uplifts rather than undermines. MacDonald does an exceptional job maintaining the overall consequential and investigative tone whilst allowing for moments of levity, with even a joke or two. There are also great stylistic touches from the production designers, with Hollander’s war room concealed in a wash of yellow paper, reflecting the submersion in paperwork. There is even a Guantanamo gift shop, which is so absolute in its Americanness.

Where The Mauritanian really shines, though, is its play with aspect ratios—the shifting of its framing and colouring, allowing for different tones and moods. For example, the 4:3, documentary-esque realism of Salahi’s Guantanamo memories, the stylish vignettes of Mohamedou’s memories are a clever formal device that gives us a sense of emotional nostalgia and reflection. This formal creativity is what enhances the terrifying depiction of Guantanamo as it’s individualized through Mohamedou’s emotional memory – the intentionally nauseating rapid-fire editing alongside the chaotic and incoherent visual noise feels specifically targeted to both Mohamedou and the viewer. Its close alignment with cinematographic emotionality primes us for the extreme displacement we see Mohamedou go through later, as the mental and physical torture of Guantanamo push his present into his past as he retreats into himself, taking us on a mind-bending, horrifying trip that grips and enthrals us, injecting terror directly into our viewing experience. 

The Mauritanian is one of the most unflinching and resolute explorations of human suffering and institutional immorality that you’ll see for a long time, and that all comes down to the synergy of a creative formal experimentation from MacDonald that aligns us incredibly close with a beautifully tragic performance from Tahar Rahim, making us feel what he feels without having to say a word. 

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