In an uncertain time and an unidentified country in postcolonial Africa a terrible and familiar conflict rages. Bereft of political context, the meaning of the conflict is also left unknown; the allegiances of the combatants are left to the viewers’ imaginations. Only one thing seems absolutely clear: the white landowners who are the main characters must leave and do so quickly. Why then do they hesitate? That is the question at the heart of this French film by Claire Denis.
The film’s protagonist, if such a tragically flawed character can be called that, is Maria Vial, who manages a coffee plantation owned by her husband’s father. Apparently oblivious to palpable signs, direct exhortations, and even dire threats, she stubbornly insists on staying “one more week” to harvest the coffee. The army that has protected the white establishment is in full retreat. Her workers have fled. In order to replace them she must bribe her way past the gun-waving young men of the village who have set up a road block. Child soldiers wander freely through gaps in the plantation fences and threaten her grown but useless son who responds with an astonishing and frightening transformation. Every scene seethes with tension.
What motivates Maria? This is the burning core of what is both a psychological portrait and an allegory about the consequences of colonialism. Why doesn’t she recognize the futility of her actions? Played masterfully by Isabelle Hupert, Maria is not stupid. At times surprisingly sympathetic she is also stunningly oblivious to her overtly superior attitude towards her black countrymen. She seems incapable of imagining the ruin of her world, let alone the needs, hopes, and fears of all the people she encounters.
Although its obvious narrative relates to Western imperialism and colonial decadence, I believe the film has broader ramifications. It is about the psychology of privilege and power. Maybe I’ve been too affected by the events of the last week right here in Madison, Wisconsin, but I see something akin to what Maria goes through happening in our country. I see Governor Scott Walker and the national tea party movement as the curling edge of a breaking wave of conservatism that is reacting out of fear. It is the fear of change, the potential for upheaval as our society becomes more and more diverse.
Maria reacts with denial. The oppressed people who have been victimized by colonialism react with violence. Maria’s son…well, I don’t want to ruin it; you’ll have to see the movie to find out how he reacts.
As I write this there is still time to see the last showing of it tonight at the UWM Union theater. (It needs an audience; there was hardly anyone there last night.) Or queue it up on Netflix.
To see the White Material trailer, go to you-tube.