The filmmakers might have tried harder to recruit regional talent.
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Starring: Tahar Rahim, Antonio Banderas, Mark Strong, Freida Pinto
Let’s get the preamble over with before we go anywhere. Black Gold, a US$55 million (Dh202m) epic filmed across the sand dunes of Tunisia and Qatar, is the first big-budget, big-name film part-funded and co-produced by the Doha Film Institute and easily the biggest Arab-financed movie to come out of the region.
Telling a fictitious account of the Arab Peninsula during the first discovery of oil, Black Gold was being compared with Lawrence of Arabia – another sandy affair set during a time of regional upheaval – from the outset, and it’s clearly something the film’s poster designers have tried to evoke. Subtly coloured faces of the main cast rise smoke-like into the sky. The words “Brought to you in Technicolor” wouldn’t look amiss. But while it’s a bold effort, sadly Black Gold falls several sand dunes short of David Lean’s classic.
The story revolves around two warring emirs squabbling over a patch of land known as the Yellow Belt. One, the devious-eyebrowed Nassib (Antonio Banderas) emerges marginally victorious, but to guarantee peace takes the sons of his rival Amar (Mark Strong) as hostage. Fifteen years goes by without so much as a peep, but when American prospectors discover oil in the disputed territory and start throwing figures around, things predictably take a turn for the worse.
Nassib, considered the modernist, sees the new income as an opportunity for growth, whereas the traditionalist Amar views the drilling on the Yellow Belt as tantamount to war. Caught in the middle is Amar’s son and Nassib’s captive-slash-stepson Auda (Tahar Rahim), a nerdish bookworm put in an even more complicated position through his forced marriage to Nassib’s daughter Princess Lallah (Freida Pinto). Used as a negotiator, Auda quickly becomes the film’s main protagonist, rising from bespectacled librarian to a fearless leader of men in the blink of a camel’s eye.
Rahim pulled a fine zero-to-hero trick in A Prophet, but in Black Gold he just doesn’t convince, spending much of the film with a confused look on his face as though permanently trying to solve a complicated piece of algebra. Unfortunately, as French-Algerian, he’s the only member of the main cast with a hint of Arab blood.
Banderas may claim regional ancestry through his Andalucían roots (seriously), but his accent veers worryingly – and often amusingly – close to his Puss In Boots voice. Exemplified by his turn as a Jordanian intelligence chief in Body of Lies, the British actor Strong perhaps comes across as the most authentic, although his wispy beard does give him the distinct look of Aladdin’s Jafar.
It’s a shame there wasn’t a bigger effort to get more regional talent in the line-up. A pretty face she may have, but Pinto isn’t a huge presence and her character spends little time outside her harem. Here would have been a perfect opportunity to introduce an emerging Arabic-speaking star.
Cast aside, there are some impressive sun-soaked battle scenes across the desert, with countless camels, tanks and horses offering the charmingly retro feel of a 1960s Hollywood epic.
But the real cause for celebration is the film’s very existence. Finally, there is solid proof that big-budget, Hollywood-backed films (it’s being co-distributed by Warner Bros) can and will be made in the region, and with stories that finally see Arabs as the heroes. Given the growth of the region’s film industry, let’s hope Black Gold is just the start.