The Mauritanian

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Tahar Rahim in The Mauritanian.
Tahar Rahim in The Mauritanian.
Photo: ©2021 STX Films


The Mauritanian


Now showing in cinema


5/5 Stars


A defence attorney, her associate and a military prosecutor uncover a far-reaching conspiracy while investigating the case of a suspected 9/11 terrorist imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for six years.


Imagine being imprisoned for 14 years by a democratic country without a single criminal charge.

That's the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi - a detainee of the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison known for its torture of terror suspects since the 9/11 attacks. His story is retold on the big screen in The Mauritanian, based on Salahi's memoir that he published while still fighting for his freedom. While it's been almost a decade since this attack on America reshaped the world, it's hard to believe that a place like Guantanamo can still exist in today's 'woke' society. It feels part of a different era, almost forgotten by the public, but The Mauritanian will help reignite that global conversation.

The film follows a straightforward narrative, starting with Salahi's arrest and disappearance until an American lawyer tracks him down in Guantanamo Bay and takes on his case in a crusade to defend the law. However, it starts to become more theatrical as Salahi recounts his past and the torture he endured at the prison, its cinematography and even aspect ratio switching it up to create a distinctive line between past and present. It can get disjointed at times, the trademark of documentary veteran director Kevin Macdonald, but there's a rhythm to it, and it's easy to go with the flow.

However, this movie might not have been as emotionally dynamic without the powerhouse performances of French actor Tahar Rahim and the graceful austerity of Jodie Foster. This is not an easy role to take on and will push any seasoned actor to the limits of their mental capacity. There's a surprising sweetness in the character that could have been created by fancy writing, but through the end footage of the real Salahi, you'll see that is his true essence, and it's unreal how well Rahim captured that. A man full of smiles and warmth, yet you can see the sadness behind the laughter, cultivated by horrible abuse. Rahim's strongest tearjerker moment was during his court scene, giving testimony from afar via live stream, and Rahim delivers scathing blows to the American system while retaining his softness. This monologue will sit in your heart long after the credits have rolled.

One should also not forget Foster, who plays Salahi's tenacious lawyer. She believes so much in the legal system that she pushes through her reservations about Salahi's innocence to give him his day in court. Foster's fervour is less pronounced then Rahim's, but her emotions boil just underneath the surface, a delicate act that Foster excels in. She won a Golden Globe for her performance, while Rahim was also nominated but lost out to the late Chadwick Boseman. It's a travesty that both were snubbed in the Oscars list, and I also honestly believe that it should have gotten a Best Picture nomination alongside them.

Perhaps its subject matter is just a little too uncomfortable for Americans.

Guantanamo is still open despite political efforts to get it closed, with 40 prisoners still imprisoned there (that we know of). While it's a far cry from its hey-day of almost 800 prisoners, some of these prisoners have been there since 9/11, and only a few have actually been charged with any crime.

Yet, The Mauritanian doesn't aim to prove innocence on behalf of Salahi, as I'm sure many Americans still believe him guilty. Instead, it promotes the fundamentals of a democratic legal process and the abuses that run rampant in its absence. In this case, the art of the film isn't in its storytelling. Instead, tragedy and hope are carried by poignant performances and a director that understands how important the message is he has to deliver.


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