Some movies have torture scenes for shock value but in this political thriller, there’s a purpose to the 10-minute sequence.
Some movies have torture scenes for shock value but in this political thriller, there’s a purpose to the 10-minute sequence.

Movie’s cruel torture scene reveals atrocity

Much has happened in the six years since the report into the CIA's use of torture at Guantanamo Bay, and by that we don't mean the kind of real reckoning such damning revelations should have brought on.

Instead, while the US and the world has been dealing with the circus of the Trump presidency, COVID and myriad other problems, Guantanamo Bay remains in operation with 40 prisoners still held there without charge or trial.

Mohamedou Salahi was one of the men at Guantanamo Bay who had been detained without charge and tortured into a false confession before finally being released in 2016. He spent more than 14 years there.

The Mauritanian is a movie of his experiences, directed by Scottish filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) from Salahi's memoirs, which he wrote and released while imprisoned.

 

Tahar Rahim has been nominated for a BAFTA Award for his role in The Mauritanian.
Tahar Rahim has been nominated for a BAFTA Award for his role in The Mauritanian.

 

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The Mauritanian is an absorbing political drama elevated by a superb performance by BAFTA-nominated and Cesar-winning French actor Tahar Rahim (A Prophet), who plays Salahi with the humanity that is evident in his real-life counterpart, which you glimpse at the end of the film.

Rahim's performance is integral to whether or not The Mauritanian works because if you believe Salahi could've been guilty of what the US government could not prove over the 14 years in which he was in their custody, then the film falls apart.

In Rahim's hands, this is a character deserving of empathy.

By the time The Mauritanian arrives at the dramatic centrepiece of the film, a devastating 10-minute sequence in which Salahi is savagely tortured by interrogators, the filmmakers are drawing on all the warmth and sympathy the film has built for this character.

It's a deeply disturbing set-piece that drives home the gross abuse of power and law committed by the US government against individuals, but also against the global community which expected a so-called world leader to be better than that.

While the 10-minute sequence seems never-ending, it's a tiny fraction of the time Salahi spent in the clutches of his abusers. Movies like The Mauritanian contextualise not just the inexcusable acts but also the proven futility of them, eliciting false confessions and information.

 

Shailene Woodley and Jodie Foster in The Mauritanian.
Shailene Woodley and Jodie Foster in The Mauritanian.

 

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Mohamedou was detained by authorities in Mauritania over phone logs connecting him to Al Qaeda and a history training with the group at the time it was supported by the US in the conflict against the USSR.

After he is transported to Guantanamo Bay, his case ends up in the hands of crusading lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster). She takes it on pro bono to challenge the government's suspension of habeas corpus, a legal principle that underpins the right to a hearing before a judge.

With her French-speaking younger associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), Nancy must navigate the deliberately difficult process involving boxes and boxes of redacted files, a sensitive materials clearing centre and the veils of secrecy that obscure every element of the case.

On the government side, the military lawyer assigned to prosecute the case, Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), has a personal connection to a 9/11 victim but finds himself equally frustrated at being unable to access the information necessary to try the case.

 

Benedict Cumberbatch is also one of the producers for The Mauritanian.
Benedict Cumberbatch is also one of the producers for The Mauritanian.

 

The Report, a thriller starring Annette Bening and Adam Driver, was more gripping and effective in revealing the covert government conspiracy in torturing suspects at Guantanamo and if you've seen that, The Mauritanian works as something of a companion piece by grounding that with a personal story.

The Mauritanian might easily have been a decent albeit forgettable political biopic, but that dignified Rahim performance makes it a far more enduring and memorable film.

Rating: 3.5/5

The Mauritanian is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video

Share your movies and TV obsessions | @wenleima

Originally published as Movie's cruel torture scene reveals atrocity


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