Though set against a civil war in the African country of Chad, A Screaming Man‘s loudest moments aren’t screams from battle, but its characters’ often silent inner rumblings that register like thunder against the movie’s stormy backdrop. The way to the movie’s soul, its antiwar and anti-globalization sentiment, is through its characters’ eyes, haunted by a sense of defenselessness and confusion.
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun uses the simple, unhurried shots of his influences, Yazujiro Ozu and Hou Hsiao-hsien, to tease out subtleties and lingering emotions lost in fast-paced editing. Though the technique of those masters remains unmatched, Haroun finds confidence in their footsteps, and because of this the movie feels steadier, sturdier, and more compositionally fluent than Haroun’s previous work. In Abouna and Darrat, characters sometimes entered or left a frame awkwardly or unobtrusively enough that you often missed their entrance or departure or wondered what Haroun was going for. Here, there’s a directness that’s clearer and more spatially connective, allowing a more studied and contemplative understanding of characters’ inner and outer trajectories. The images have a painterly quality; the characters become still lifes that allow for slow observations.
The stability that’s lost in Chad is represented by an aging, former swimming medalist, Adam, whose everyday life is now enjoyed by keeping watch over a hotel pool. Playing Adam, Youssouf Djaoro, from Haroun’s last film Darrat, has a dazed yet determined look that’s especially potent in this role, one where he must try to cope with the unfortunate national and personal circumstances he finds himself in.
When the hotel Adam works for is taken over by new Chinese owners, the waves of globalization have reached the shore of his life, and then when he loses his job to his son, Abdel (Diouc Koma), they pull him out to sea. In an off-screen scene, a directorial choice that at once suggests the difficulty of Adam’s own choice and, like in a meaningful and difficult murder scene, the unpleasantness of seeing it, Adam recruits Abdel for the military which in turn gives him his job back. It’s easy to fault Adam for poor morals, but the film encourages you to see his choice within his given situation. The price he pays for his choice, depicted as much as a personal lesson as one caused by these more abstract powers upending him, as much of a personal tragedy as a historical consequence, is more moralistic than moralizing.
As if because victims of history have no voice, characters frequently have to find other ways than talking to express feeling. Two scenes stand out in particular. When Adam gets his pool job taken away, he puts on his new, ill-fitting gatekeeper uniform, and in a near dry take on Tati has to dash between two lanes, lifting gates for a suddenly busy throng of honking cars. In the final scene, Abdel’s girlfriend, who appears in the last part of the movie, busts out a poignant song a cappella, articulating much of the simmering pain just under the surface.
A Screaming Man is a sad movie, one that’s sympathetic to its characters in a way that draws from a personal understanding—the idea for this movie was born from Haroun’s experiences with the civil war while filming Darrat—that gives its fictional story a tinge of emotional reportage.