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Non-Review Review: Black Gold

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

The problem at the heart of Black Gold is that its politics are too simple to fit within the confines of the epic sand-swept adventure that it sets out to tell. It’s hard to construct a standard epic when there’s no clear delineation between the forces of good and evil. While the stylish direction, larger-than-life performances and James Horner’s classic score may point to an old-fashioned adventure film, the fact we’re asked to sympathise with a protagonist burning men alive in tanks or engaging in terrorist tactics creates a surreal dissonance that the movie never quite gets past.

Riders in the sandstorm...

To be fair, there’s a lot to like in the production of Black Gold. It does, mostly, look and sound a lot like those epics that Hollywood seldom makes anymore. The cinematography is beautiful, and the Arab sands look absolutely beautiful. The script might be a bit hokey and staged, with some stilted and awkward dialogue, but this just adds to the sense we might be watching an older film.

Indeed, Mark Strong and Antonio Banderas provide two gloriously hammy performances, with pieces of the scenery liable to get caught in Banderas’ goatee. “We should laugh at ourselves,” he declares, surveying a contested realm, “to think we made war over this.” I am convinced Banderas can modulate his Spanish accent, and this in intensely focused. Practising carefully enunciation, his Latin charm drizzled liberally over the extended vowel sounds.

Never really takes off...

Mark Strong is relatively more restrained, but he expresses his inner ham through his eyes. In the film, his character’s son compares his appearance to a hawk, and that’s perfectly fair. While Banderas applies his Spanish accent without any hesitation, Strong is sure to contrast him. Every syllable is delivered in the most solemn and important way. It’s just as overstated, but in another way.

And it’s fantastic. In the vast and featureless desert, it’s up to the actors to define the landscape, and the pair manage to seem like the only two characters in the film. Which poses a problem, because they’re not. Even the nominal protagonist, the “child of two fathers”, seems much less developed than either sultan.

The sultan of swing...

And minor characters suffer worse, creating minor hiccups when characters seem to do things for no other reason than to enable the plot. Why does one son suddenly try to escape? Why, after being told to announce peace talks, does another minor character instead give a list of demands? It creates all manner of tiny problems that slowly mount up over the course of the film.

Of course, there’s a reason that the editing seems to focus on Banderas and Strong, and it’s not just because they are the most fun to watch. It’s the middle section of the film, when the movie shifts focus away from the pair to the character of Prince Auda, that the problems begin to show. We’re asked to accept this character’s transformation from a kingdom’s “Chief Librarian” to fully-blown Mahdi with no real development. It seems that he immediately gives up on the prospect of peaceful resolution after spending ten minutes in the company of his biological father.

Get Auda here!

There’s an uncomfortable subtext here, as the movie clearly takes sides in this ideological conflict between the old and the new regimes. Even the most secular character in the script, Auda’s half-brother, experiences a last-minute conversion to militant Islam, ironic for a character who is introduced complaining about how difficult it is to get ahold of modern medicine in the kingdom. Sure, Auda claims that he’ll open schools and hospitals, but that doesn’t change the fact that he laid siege to another kingdom for doing so. Similarly, it seems strange to believe that the tribes following him, who drowned an American expedition in oil, will put much stock in his promise not to cut off all connections with the outside world. After all, he sends a vanquished foe to an oil company as a form of exile – it seems counter-productive to instil a potential rival in a position of great authority.

Progress, through the exploitation of oil, is shown to be hugely detrimental – without any weight given to the opportunities that it might afford a region of the world that is more than a century behind Paris or London. When Banderas’ modernising sultan is shown to open schools and hospitals and air strips, they are dismissed as “trinkets of the West.” We’re told that he has “bought” the loyalty of local chieftains with tacky gold watches and through bribery – of course, you could argue that he is merely sharing the wealth, but that lacks the implicit moral judgment that one gets when one uses the word bribery.

And hell rode with him...

Similarly, it’s telling that the one sinister tribe – a desert people who engage in slavery – are shown as the steadfast supporters of the reformers, while all other tribes side against them under Auda. This raises several uncomfortable associations – like the idea that the modernisers are guilty by association, even though Auda himself was planning to barter with these known slave-traders. Similarly, the movie seems to imply that no other tribe in the region used slaves, which feels like a bit of a forced point.

Similarly, even the one character who might have been convinced by the logical and reasonable arguments made by Banderas’ character is later revealed to have been held against his will. It feels distinctly unpleasant to watch a film where the guy building schools, making sure that the local people get their share of wealth, fighting cholera and embracing the rest of the world is shown to be the bad guy. We know that Banderas is playing the movie’s villain because dollar signs appear in his eyes when the prospect of oil is mentioned. “How rich?” he asks a prospector. It feels strange that the one person who doesn’t treat foreigners as “infidels” should turn out to be in need of removal.

Nor the battle to the Strong...

Auda’s methods are terrorism by another name. It’s somewhat frustrating that the guy has no problem burning nameless soldiers alive inside of tanks while showing a moment of self-doubt when he kills his step-brother. (The step-brother, incidentally, dies of a broken neck – which is relatively clean compared to some of the other fates of his victims that the movie never really dwells upon.)

Black Gold has a lot of problems. The biggest is that it tries to fit a story to a template that simply doesn’t suit it. The conflict between conservative Islamic belief against more modernising elements within that region is a topic ripe for development and exploration. However, grafting that story to the format of a sweeping romantic epic simply doesn’t work. It tastes like sand in my mouth.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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