Monday, 21 May 2012

Film Review: Black Gold

Certificate: 12A
Directed By: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Antonio Banderas, Mark Strong, Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed, Liya Kebede
Budget: €40 million
Runtime: 130 minutes
Trailer: Watch

A peace is brokered between two warring Arab tribes, cemented by Amar (Strong) giving his two sons to rival Nesib (Banderas) as hostages. Years later the wary peace is perturbed by the discovery of oil. Nesib violates their treaty when he begins exploiting the riches buried beneath the agreed upon demarcation zone. Philosophical conflicts over religion, politics, tradition, progress and love are ignited.

Other than the events depicted in Lawrence Of Arabia, not a whole lot seems to be known in the West about the Arab world during the early twentieth century. In many ways then the most appealing thing about Black Gold is its mini history lesson of the Bedouin tribes removed from T.E. Lawrence's slice of the action and their rise to statehood on the Arabian peninsula. This is epitomised here when the discovery of oil triggers a clash between the case for progress, represented by Nesib, and the defence of tradition embodied in Amar. Nesib is enamoured by the material wealth that the black gold brings, as well as the tangible benefits that elevate his people's living standards to those experienced in the West. Amar on the other hand views these 'benefits' and the agendas of the West with suspicion, a threat to their culture and way of life. It's not necessarily the most mind-blowing concept, but watching it unfold is somewhat compelling as these two diametrically opposed dogmas fight over how to adjust to their new reality.

At the centre of this conflict is Amar's son Auda (Rahim), who has developed into a learned, albeit meek, young man under Nesib's custody. He falls for Nesib's daughter, Princess Leyla (Pinto), and the two are quickly wed out of love between them, and political expediency for Nesib. Raunchy sex scenes which would never make it past an Islamic film certification board ensue. More importantly Auda soon becomes central to the ideological battle Nesib and Amar are waging, his loyalty torn between his two father-figures, each determined to make use of his unique position.

While this all sounds very grandiose in its abstraction, the problems with Black Gold are in its execution. For one it suffers from serious pacing issues, particularly in the first half which bounds along at a gallop but never lingering to explore character's origins before slowing right down to the near point of tedium. The dialogue is also somewhat bromidic, delivered by a plethora of foreigners attempting their best Arabic accents in earnest. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Antonio Banderas, whose accentuated auricular enunciations become ridiculously obvious. Indeed, for all its epic allusions, it all falls short in pulling the material together effectively.

Black Gold is quite obviously a labour of love. A lot of money was spent and it shows in its high production values and incredibly vivid cinematography, the latter giving an indisputable nod to Lawrence Of Arabia in one battle sequence. While it is admittedly fascinating in many respects, particularly those with an interest in the history of the region, for all its ambitions it too frequently suffers from being trite throughout and arid for extended periods. Consequently the film spends most of its time wandering the desert in search of an oasis, which is disappointing as Black Gold should really have struck oil.