White Material ★★★★½

The image of Scarlet O'Hara burns in Maria Vial, two women bound by stubbornness, civil war, colonial white privilege, and a fierce dedication for indigenous land. Land is the key element here. Being rooted in land, and exploiting it economically, is the foundation of colonialism. 

In this near mythic retelling of post-colonial rule in Africa, anarchy has taken over and convulsed the land, raped and pillaged it, leading white armies and black rebels to embrace civil war in all its ugly, destructive grandeur. 

At the center of all this looting, burning, fleeing, and savagery, Maria Vial tries to make sense of the chaos, totally ignorant of her complicit role in it. "It's people like you who make this country corrupt," a rebel officer tells her. "We've been rooted here for years," she responds, little understanding the connection between the privileges of her white European legacy and its encroachment upon this unnamed African country, its people, its government, and the land they've embezzled beneath their feet for decades. 

The point of view from which this story is told is adroitly nuanced, where in one breath we admire Maria's physical courage to fight for, and cling to, a land that she believes belongs to her heritage; in another breath, we're alarmed by her ignorance and self-preservation in the matter, not to mention the creeping violence that's slowly consuming her world. She seems unaffected by the hostility surrounding her, evidenced by her ironclad refusal to flee like everyone else. It's a luxury only white privilege can afford. By the same token, she's also confused by the spreading chaos and doesn't seem to understand why the country is being torn to pieces. It's a perspective that's deliberately disordered and fragmented, as it mirrors the confusion we as audience members feel while watching the madness spread. 

Has Maria's family been exploiting or caring for the land? Is her brother's radical transformation a direct result of the pandemonium? The answers are ambiguously knotted. All we get is a snapshot of paradise overtaken, of power being fiercely stolen back from white to black hands, and of post-colonialism's devastating effects upon an entire country. It's a film that weeps and wails and gnashes its teeth over the ugly legacy of imperialism. An excellent, visceral companion piece to Denis' debut film CHOCOLAT (1988).


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