An eccentric mix of documentary-like observation and head-trippy experimentalism, Tunisian director Ala Eddine Slim’s wordless feature-length debut, The Last of Us, tracks a nameless man’s odyssey into the heart of nature. The film’s opening sees the man—played by street artist Jawhar Soudani and identified in the credits as simply “young man”—and his companion (Jihed Fourti) making their way across the hazy swelter of the Sahara, and for a moment it seems as if Slim will deliver a straightforward migrant drama along the lines of Jonas Carpignano’s Mediterranea.
Soon, though, the complete lack of dialogue and character names reveals the project to be something much more peculiar. By the time the man, now separated from his fellow traveler, sets out across the Mediterranean only to find himself in a mysterious forested land populated solely by a grizzly old man (Fathi Akkari) clothed in animal furs, and who may or may not be an older version of himself, the film has submitted to pure abstraction.
With this turn into full-on allegory, you may wonder if the film’s protagonist is even alive. Certainly he could have perished while crossing the Mediterranean, as obliquely suggested by some poetic lines that appear on screen: “I stormed in deep into the human jungle…where I figured out myself as a ghost.” The Last of Us recasts the African migrant experience as an existential confrontation with mortality, the nameless man representing those countless immigrants who’ve encountered catastrophe attempting to reach Europe.
This is undoubtedly an ambitious undertaking, but Slim’s avant-garde mysticism sometimes lapses into meandering abstruseness. The man, who appears in nearly every frame, isn’t really a character but a representational figure, meaning that the film’s appeal rests less on empathy for his situation than on the potency of the filmmaker’s ideas and the power of his imagery. Unfortunately, Slim’s ideas are often obscure, his metaphorical evocation of the migrant experience more lucid in theory than in practice.
Slim’s imagery, however, is entrancing throughout, redolent of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s work in the way varied environments—desert, city, sea, forest—hint at the characters’ different emotional states. The Last of Us is often most engaging at its most literal, observing its protagonist as he scrounges for plastic bottles on seashores or hunts for mushrooms growing on mossy tree trunks. When the allegory and experimental flourishes drop away, Slim reveals himself as a sensitive chronicler of human behavior.