Far from Men is set against the backdrop of the blossoming Algerian War of Independence in 1954, following Daru (Viggo Mortensen), a man of few words who teaches reading to the children of goat-herding Algerian natives, though one look at him reveals that he’s obviously haunted by something primal and existential. Daru’s one-room school, which sits on a plateau that’s in the middle of a rocky, desert Nowheresville, clearly serves as a sort of monastery for the teacher, as it’s a place for him to practice a kind of theoretically under-the-radar pacifism. There’s no such thing, however, as Daru is frequently bothered by the French military and, suggestively, by the guerrilla Algerian resistance. The teacher’s neutrality is dangerous and seen as a threat by both sides, and this issue is further clouded because Daru, like many Algerian settlers, has explicit ties to both the French and Arab communities. These cultural ambiguities reach a potentially explosive head when the French military drops an Arab, Mohamed (Reda Kateb), off at Daru’s door, ordering him to deliver the prisoner to a nearby French prison for sentencing and inevitable execution.
The political context pervades the narrative, most tellingly in the evocative clash of languages and in the allusions to Daru’s past military service, but it ultimately serves as all-purpose socialist texture; the film is truly a melancholic western that could be set in any chaotic desert wasteland with little in the way of accommodating alteration. The first act is a loyal adaptation of Albert Camus’s short story The Guest, which weirdly resembles Elmore Leonard’s story Three-Ten to Yuma, another, albeit pulpier, tale of a reluctant law enforcer and a captive who challenges his ideology. Director David Oelhoffen even structures his adaptation in a manner resembling the film treatments of the Leonard story, opening The Guest up beyond its chamber-drama roots to fashion a road adventure in which the two men come to bond over their respective cultural estrangements.
Oelhoffen’s direction is beautifully pared, particularly in his use of the unforgivingly jagged landscapes, but he’s boiled quite a bit of Camus’s irony and despair out of the story, instead favoring two characters who’re so decent and compatible as to risk steering the whole enterprise into a realm of platitudinous banality. Far from Men often suggests a less defiant cover of The Defiant Ones, yet it’s a must-see for Mortensen’s characteristically wonderful performance. One of the most subtly physically tactile of great actors, he masterfully dramatizes the war between the said and the unsaid. Daru might cut a startlingly progressive western figure (and, indeed, it’s refreshing to see a film that’s entirely about the prevention of revenge), but he’s still a man’s man who’s uncomfortable with expressing the totality of his emotions, though they have a tendency to come burbling up. A moment between Daru and a Spanish prostitute is heartbreaking for the various tentative registers that are visible on Mortensen’s face as Daru’s eventually driven to directly utter his mind’s occupation: that it’s been such a long time since he’s been with someone. This confrontation of expression is later reprised in the film’s best scene, in which the teacher nearly cries when telling his students that this is their last class, though he wants it to transpire as any other. This deftly haunting acknowledgment of loss is worth a hundred anti-war sermons.