Claire Denis' "White Material," which the Macon Film Guild is screening as its February offering, is one the most challenging movies it has ever shown, but one that delivers rewards that make it well worth the effort to consume it.
As the movie opens, we find the great French actress Isabelle Huppert running down a dirt road in an unnamed African country, and just what she's running from or toward is a mystery that Denis unfolds slowly and like a good riddle, playing engaging tricks with time to bring us into this story at multiple points and from all kinds of different perspectives.
Huppert plays Maria Vial, who we eventually find out operates a coffee plantation with the family that is crumbling as quickly as is the post-colonial world around her. As bands of rebel soldiers - many of them children - close in on her beloved land to take it away, she remains as defiant as she is delusional to the reality of her surroundings, not at all unlike a modern-day Scarlett O'Hara.
This, however, isn't Tara, and as the story slowly and elliptically unfurls, we find out that Maria, while still attached to the land, is quickly becoming as estranged to her family as she is to this unnamed country. She is separated from her husband, played by Christopher Lambert, though they still operate what's left of the plantation together, and his father still lives there. Their son is a layabout who isn't engaged by much of anything until he's consumed by the heart of darkness, just many that beat through this enigmatic work.
Into the chaos of her personal and business life, Maria welcomes "The Boxer," a wounded rebel fighter played by Isaach De Bankolé, who will be familiar to fans of Jim Jarmusch movies. Though he clearly has his own band of loyal followers, he has at least as many enemies, and the discord among the rebel forces just adds to the tension of what Denis has cooked up.
And at the center of all this, its Huppert herself that gives the movie the emotional resonance that's sometimes lost in its puzzling delivery. Her frail appearance is almost completely at odds with the iron will with which she clings to this decaying empire, which just makes her seem all the more of an outsider in this place she still desperately wants to call home. It's a remarkable performance.
If you're not in Macon, keep an eye out for this on DVD and blu-ray from Criterion on April 12, but if you are, definitely turn out at the Douglass Theatre this Sunday for a unique movie that drops you into the heart of Africa for an engaging allegory about its past and present that doubles as an often mesmerizing mystery.