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The Mauritanian (15) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Kevin Macdonald, UK/US, 2021, 129 mins, in French and Arabic (with subtitles) and English

Cast:  Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch

Review by Carol Allen

The Mauritanian of the title is a real person, whose story is being told here.  Mohamedou Ould Slahi (played in the film by Tahar Rahim) was abducted from his homeland in Mauritania two months after 9/11 by the Americans, because they believed he was involved in recruiting the team who perpetrated the atrocity.

He was held in the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay for fourteen years with no charge ever being brought against him. The film tells the story of how criminal defence lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) fought for years to get Mohamedou freed.  She was also instrumental in getting his story known. 

The film is an emotionally gripping piece of work, very well directed by Kevin McDonald and the blind and blatant injustice imposed on Slahi may well move you to anger.   Rahim at the centre of it as Mohamedou gives an excellent, finely nuanced and very convincing performance.  Perhaps not surprisingly in view of its criticism of American policy, neither he nor the film have gathered any Oscar nominations but the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs have shown their appreciation.

The character Rahim plays is a highly intelligent man, who won a scholarship to a German university, speaks German and French as well as his own language and who teaches himself English from listening to his jailors.  At first his interrogators appear to be quite civilised.  They tell him another prisoner has identified him as the man who recruited the 9/11 team and all he has to do is confirm that.  But Mohamedou continues to protest his innocence – and then things start to get rough.

His story emerges in flashback through his meetings with Nancy, as she investigates his case.  Apart from one of Slahi’s jailors, the Americans are shown throughout as the bad guys, from the security guards at Gauntanamo, who are curt, rude and dismissive to Nancy when she visits her client, to the military high ups who are bent on revenge and holding someone responsible – anyone.  This particularly applies to the military torturers, administering their various mental and physical “protocols” – waterboarding, brutal beatings and worse.  Shockingly they include women in their number.  The scenes of torture, while brief, are deeply upsetting. 

Foster depicts Hollander as a formidable figure.  Her no nonsense straight grey hair and particularly the slash of blood red lipstick she always wears across her narrow lips help enhance her iron determination for her cause.  

In a smaller role is Benedict Cumberbatch as the military lawyer whose best friend was killed in 9/11 and who is assigned to defend the American government against Hollander’s plea for her client. The case is presented to him as a fait accompli, which will give him the chance to avenge his dead friend. It is only when he tries to gather evidence for his case and finds that he too is blocked by the authorities that he begins to doubt the justice of his cause and his country. 

The end of the film tells us what happened to Slahi and the other real life characters after his eventual release.  Encouraged by Nancy Hollander, Slahi wrote a best selling book, Guantanamo Diary, about his experience.  But why has the American government never been held to account for their crimes against Slahi and many others?  Imprisonment without trial or even charges being brought; torture, perhaps murder.  Surely these are war crimes which should be prosecuted in an international court? 

The Mauritanian is available on Amazon Prime