The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have been a cold slap in the face for idealistic, white Western journalists. For each report given amidst the populist rallies in the streets of Cairo, unfortunately we also hear other reports about the brutal assaults of these same journalists.
White Material, director Claire Denis' elegy of racial strife in an unnamed African country, weaves an uneven tapestry of violence set against great beauty. Espresso-colored landscapes are the backdrop of a deteriorating nation; French colonialists flee in droves; child rebels carry machetes; and the most basic of needs such as food and medicine are wasted. Denis grew up in Africa and used the continent as a backdrop for her semi-autobiographical 1988 film Chocolat. White Material can readily serve as a companion piece.
Pale-skinned actress Isabelle Huppert stars as Maria Vial, a woman who runs a failing coffee plantation with grit and naivete. She is oblivious to danger, and that puts her at constant risk through the film. Terror hides in the tall grass surrounding her farm, yet she focuses on finishing a harvest that will never be complete. She is even ignorant of her own heritage. When a radio announcer orders Caucasians to leave the region, Maria agrees they should.
"Stupid whites," she says. "Whites don't deserve to live in this wonderful country."
Everyone around Maria wants her to run for her life. Her ne'er-do-well husband, portrayed by Christopher Lambert (Highlander), is trying to sell the farm from under her in order to pay off his debts. Her son Manuel, played by Nicolas Duvauchelle, is pathologically obsessed with violence. And Maria puts herself in even greater danger by offering refuge to a wounded rebel officer known as the Boxer, played by Isaach De Bankole (who starred in Chocolat).
White Material moves slowly, yet is never slow-motioned. It is purposeful rather than plodding. The soundtrack includes music from British alt-rock band Tindersticks.
The milky-white complexion of Huppert serves the theme expertly. Her whiter-than-white skin reminds the rebels that no matter how many years she or her family have lived in Africa, they are oppressors, and only violence will end that social structure.