'White Material' tells a woman's horrifying story in postcolonial Africa

Isabelle Huppert, as plantation manager Maria, with Christopher Lambert in "White Material."
Isabelle Huppert, as plantation manager Maria, with Christopher Lambert in "White Material."
Posted: December 10, 2010

Claire Denis' directing debut, 1988's Chocolat, was a beautiful, bittersweet autobiographical reverie about a French colonial girl growing up in West Africa. The extraordinarily talented filmmaker's most recent piece, White Material, offers a horrifying bookend: the story of the manager and co-owner of a coffee plantation in an unnamed modern-day West African nation that is in the throes of violent political upheaval.

Isabelle Huppert is the woman, Maria, trying to hold her family business together and gather the crops as the world crumbles around her: The French military is pulling out, and rebels and government troops are engaged in fierce battle. Bands of kids - boys and a few girls - roam the dusty roads armed with machetes and automatic weapons. And radio broadcasts warn that for the "white material" - the colonialists, like Maria, her ex-husband, and their son - their time is over.

Denis, with her cinematographer, Yves Cape, captures the stark beauty of the landscape, and the dreamlike horror of the violence at hand. Huppert's performance is one of total commitment, but seems utterly unforced: the actress owns the character of Maria, a woman of steely will whose connection to the land and to its people is unwavering. But as her workers flee, and as her family fractures, it seems impossible that she can hang on.

While White Material is very much the story of this one woman, it is also a story of postcolonial Africa, a place where Europeans staked their claim, and where disorder and destruction upended everything. A mournful, frightening, powerful film.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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