The Last Face (2017)

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Synopsis – A director (Charlize Theron) of an international aid agency in Africa meets a relief aid doctor (Javier Bardem) amidst a political/social revolution, and together face tough choices.

My Take – Personally, I have never been a so called ‘fan’ of actor/director Sean Penn’s work, mainly due to the fact that his filmography  (expect the recent The Gunman) feels more like a set of roles picked out as award worthy baits. Well it looks like finally the critics & the audience has finally called out his bluff, as this yet another stupendously self-important film has been ripped apart by critics at Cannes, mainly for its plot, pacing and seemingly offensive portrayals of Africans, confirming that might be the last time he shows his own at the Cannes Film Festival, at least for a while. The trouble behind this film, which has not yet found a release date in the U.S (its core audience) & somehow found its way into the U.A.E theatres this weekend, goes far behind. According to sources, this was actually a film which was being developed by Sean’s ex-wife Robin Wright for years, and it was sort of a passion project for her. She apparently planned on starring in it with Ryan Gosling and Javier Bardem (who did end up being in it), but couldn’t secure the financing for it. After Sean and Robin split up in 2010, he went ahead and obtained the rights to the film in a form of vindictive tussle. While, Robin was initially quite depressed about the whole process & the casting of Oscar winner Charlize Theron (Sean Penn’s other romantic liaison and now exwife), this bonafide Cannes flop and harsh critical reception (7% on Rotten Tomatoes) must have come to her as a sigh of relief. Coming back to the film, let me be straight, yes this film is quite bad! As I sat in my seat in the theatre, I couldn’t decide as an audience what hurt me more – watching accomplished & usually likable actors Javier Bardem and Charlize Theron choke on laughably pompous dialogue or remembering that once-upon-a-time Penn directed watchable films like ‘The Pledge’ and ‘Into The Wild,’ before he became an award hungry political cartoon of Hollywood. Seriously, this is not only a film built to do well at film festivals, but it’s not really a film that will do well anywhere. Attempting to channel his imbalanced inspired version of Terrence Malick, Penn’s attempts at pathos are unbearable. There is not a single thing about this film that makes logical sense on paper. The idea that someone would even give Penn the money to make this film is inexcusable. I am guessing, for this project to have been approved, at some point there must have been a version of this film that does the bloodshed in Africa justice or at some point this film had to have its heart in the right place, clearly this film is not that version.  Seriously, how do you make a film that acknowledges human atrocity without scaring off viewers? Director Penn’s answer would be to mix two films into one, one about the suffering of the African people & the NGO doctors helping them out, a portion which is still watchable & the other being a half baked deficient love story which exercises in multi-layered torture.

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Told in a series of occasionally confusing flashbacks, the story follows Wren (Charlize Theron), the chief of her deceased father’s Medicines du Monde (MdM) volunteer organization, who lands in South Sudan to organize & lead the relief work to help the victims of the ongoing work. Here she meets popular & charming Dr. Miguel (Javier Bardem), who has been stationed at the Sierra Leone Refugee Camp for a long time and is so unfazed by the war zone surrounding him that he listens to Red Hot Chili Peppers while performing gruesome surgeries. With help of her cousin and fellow aid worker Helen (Adèle Exarchopoulos), she meets the rest of the team consisting of a constantly-grumpy British Christian Dr. Farber (Jared Harris), and French doctor Dr. Love (Jean Reno), who’s joined the volunteer group after his wife passed away. While making their way through the Sudanese war grounds where children are killed; massacres carried out; families destroyed; aid is looted; women raped and villages burnt, Miguel and Wren quickly fall into a relationship composed of sex, screaming and performing surgeries, which lasts for while, until Wren shocked by the horrors around her, finally breaks down. However, ten years later, they do reconnect, during which time Wren has become the director of an international aid agency, pushing UN delegates for complete honesty in analyzing the system’s failings.  The gruesomeness is shockingly presented, although we get too many shots of someone reacting to something off-screen before the reveal. And its relentlessness begins to have a numbing effect. Moments of hope are fleeting. A baby is born in the middle of the jungle as the group cowers, hiding from the patrolling rebels. The film opens with some long-winded foreword that is as silly as it is wordy. With this prologue, director Penn sets the scene for the rest of the film, which is over two hours long and full of speechifying doctors spouting earnest rubbish. This foreword is also a warning of sorts: it is very clear about announcing its abhorrence at the horrors perpetrated in various African states, but it also lets us know we are in for a love story. Because the focus is so concentrated on Wren and Miguel, where they are, who they are treating, and how all these wars occur are very much in the background. And because the action shifts in time and place, this adds to the confusion and murkiness of the settings. It is just astounding that Penn actually expects an audience to care about any of these people. Not only are all the characters completely shallow, they have unclear motivations and are downright unlikeable. Even possibly serious sequences such as when its revealed that Wren’s cousin had slept with Miguel and possibly gave him HIV, the sequence where Wren jumps from a moving vehicle to avoid a song from the Chili Peppers on the stereo is odd enough, and the supposed to be erotic mutual teeth-brushing episode are downright hilarious.

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It is really hard to take a film like this seriously when it is so obvious that Penn is trying so damn hard. The African characters fall into the usual patronizing categories: charming tykes, faceless victims and machete-wielding lunatics. They also serve as triggers for appallingly contrived moral dilemmas. Should we respect the wishes of this woman who, after losing her child, now wants only to die? How do we decide who gets the blood when we only have enough for one patient? At one point, when Wren jokes around about finding someone to grab for marriage, everyone laughs except Dr. Love. He cuts the air with “it’s not grabbing. It’s loving.” Somehow the actors managed to keep a straight face, but Theron’s tiny wince indicates that she could have pinched herself at that exact moment to make sure she’s not stuck in some kind of parodist’s sick nightmare. All of these doctors are there to save the innocents who are slaughtered as a result of civil war, but Penn and writer Erin Dignam excruciatingly try to weave a tale of strong love and connection between Miguel and Wren in the process. We never get any discussion as to the political situation and the causes of the conflict. Rather the anger is mostly direct at the indifference of the West: “Europe and America, the rich,” Miguel cries in righteous indignation, but this is all so vague and apolitical, robbed of any context that it is no surprise that at one point Wren cries out “What is wrong with you people!” as another atrocity happens before their eyes, right. When Penn finally allows Wren a moment of speechifying, her argument is so blandly innocuous – “dreams are the single most fundamental human necessity” – as to be almost meaningless. It draws an ovation from the charity event audience. How could an aid worker who has given her ten years of her life to working in Africa and for Africa be so feeble on specifics? Is it so difficult to present a compelling argument that raises the bar? Working from a script by Erin Dignam, Penn attempts to use Wren and Miguel’s romance to put a human face on these senseless tragedies, while also letting his two characters serve as conflicting viewpoints on the best way to confront such a massive crisis: either by raising awareness through the media or by diving into the trenches and helping one person at a time. All of this cinematic misfortune would at least be somewhat forgivable if it was all in good fun. This is not the case. It is not the kind of awful film that is fun to watch? The many laughs do not come from the film’s over-the-top seriousness, but rather the discomfort forced onto the viewer while watching such an excruciatingly painful work. Even though the film is supposed to be a love story, there’s zero depth to the unbelievable bond forged between Wren and Miguel & the actors do try their hardest to pull out good performances. Charlize Theron passionately tries to bring some pathos to her role, capably navigating Wren’s journey from naïve newcomer to battle-tested caregiver. In the years since winning an Oscar for Monster, she has only grown more commanding, landing at a mixture of sensitive and steely that gives her characters unexpected dimensions. By comparison, Javier Bardem is too one-noted & predictable. No matter what chemistry the two actors have, it pales in comparison to the melodramatic arc of their on-again/off-again love affair. In supporting roles, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Jared Harris and Jean Reno don’t have much to do. On the whole, ‘The Last Face’ with its bad direction, confused script, and offensive screenplay, is easily one of the worst films I have ever seen.

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Directed – Sean Penn

Starring – Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem, Adèle Exarchopoulos

Rated – R

Run Time – 132 minutes

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