Cannes 2016: The Last Face review

"Why do they always have to be entertained before they listen?" asks Javier Bardem's Dr. Miguel at the opening of Sean Penn's new film The Last Face, which is showing in competition at the 69th Cannes Film Festival. This pointed dig at the indifference of audiences is doubly mendacious because Penn's film doesn't entertain greatly nor does it have much coherent to say.

Dr. Miguel is charismatic and impetuous, committed and brave. A field worker who has had a relationship with Dr. Wren (Charlize Theron) who heads her father's old relief organisation. She is to attend a charity dinner in South Africa and the two of them are in what seems to be the closing stages of their love affair. The story of that love affair is told in a series of occasionally confusing flashbacks. In fact, the first twenty minutes of the film flip back and forth so much and are over-directed as if Penn was making up for lost time. It's been nine years since Into the Wild drew critical praise. However, once Wren and Miguel are together, their love begins to grow with their mutual admiration and the film calms down into a more chronological narrative. 

Wren is the organiser and leader: Miguel the man on the ground. Their team also consists of a Dr. Love (Jean Reno) and a British Christian doctor, played by Mad Men's Jared Harris. Adèle Exarchopoulos briefly appears as Wren's cousin and a fellow aid worker. Where they are exactly is increasingly confusing as they move from place to place and Africa begins to merge into a compendium of miseries and violence. Children are killed; massacres carried out; families destroyed; aid is looted; women raped and villages burnt. The gruesomeness is shockingly presented, although we get too many shots of someone reacting to something off-screen before the reveal. And its relentlessness begins to have a numbing effect. Moments of hope are fleeting. A baby is born in the middle of the jungle as the group cowers, hiding from the patrolling rebels. We never get any discussion as to the political situation and the causes of the conflict. Rather the anger is mostly direct at the indifference of the West: "Europe and America, the rich," Miguel cries in righteous indignation, but this is all so vague and apolitical, robbed of any context that it is no surprise that at one point Wren cries out "What is wrong with you people!" as another atrocity happens before their eyes. 'You people'? Quite. 

It is only one of many clangers that come courtesy of a script by Erin Dignam. "It is not grabbing, it is loving," was another favourite. When Penn finally allows Wren a moment of speechifying, her argument is so blandly innocuous - "dreams are the single most fundamental human necessity" - as to be almost meaningless. It draws an ovation from the charity event audience. How could an aid worker who has given her ten years of her life to working in Africa and for Africa be so feeble on specifics? So unable to present a compelling argument that rises above truisms? Obviously, Sean Penn's heart is in the right place, but then again maybe it's in the wrong place. It's right in the middle of the shot for most of The Last Face.

The 69th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 11-22 May 2016. Follow our coverage here.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty


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