The Mauritanian review: The gritty horrors of Gitmo

The horrors and the inhuman torture subjected to the inmates of the US’ extra judicial Guantánamo Bay detention camp have been the subject of many movies, reports, investigations and human rights movement. Despite the wide condemnation of international human rights and humanitarian organisations, the camp still has around 40 prisoners, mainly because of the US government’s flip flop on the closure of the detention camp. The Mauritanian focusses on one such prisoner of Gitmo.

The Mauritanian is based on the 2015 memoir Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was imprisoned for 14 years in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp without any charge or trial. Slahi, as the film title suggests, is from the north-west African country Mauritania. The former mujahideen came under the US government radar for his alleged association with one of the 9/11 hijackers. From 2002 to 2016, he was kept in Gitmo and was subjected to torture and interrogations which are considered to be human rights violations.

French actor Tahar Rahim plays the role of Slahi. He has been nominated for the Golden Globe and BAFTA for his performance. Rahim imbibes the role with nuance and sensitivity. Rahim portrays Slahi’s anger, frustration, hope, his resignation and the desire to survive the ordeal. There’s a tender moment in the film when a sense of calm washes over Rahim’s face when he’s imagining the world outside and listening to the sounds of waves crashing in. His friendship with a fellow inmate who he never meets in person showed the Herculean mental strength these prisoners needed to exercise just to survive.

Taking up Slahi’s case is Nancy Hollander played by Jodi Foster and her associate Shailene Woodley. You don't get much background about Hollander apart from the fact that she has fought many international cases, right from the Vietnam war days. Benedict Cumberbatch plays military prosecutor Lt Col Stuart Couch. He takes up the case with the objective of getting death penalty for the man responsible for his friend’s death in the Twin Tower attack until he realises that the confessions were extracted through torture and were unconstitutional.

The film unfolds in dank, dark rooms where the lawyers sift through copious amounts of documents, most of which were redacted and censored by the US government. Whether it’s Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch or Shailene Woodley, the script doesn’t offer them much to do other than to look serious and mouth rather dull and hackneyed dialogues. The characters are one dimensional, all fighters of justice. The real villain in this film is the government of the United States.

The film goes into great detail showing the various methods of torture – isolation, sleep deprivation, extreme temperatures, physical and sexual violence used on Slahi. There’s no dramatic courtroom scene, just Slahi’s plea for justice and tolerance. He was granted release from the detention camp in 2010 but actually walked free in 2016. The film ends with a smiling Slahi being released. But there’s a disconnect. Why did it take another six years for his release? The film doesn’t get into the details. It’s a reminder that Slahi’s freedom is an exception and not the norm.

Title: The Mauritanian

Cast: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Rating: 3 stars

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