A textured panorama of modern day Africa’s dynamic and volatile cross-cultural landscape, Claire Denis’s White Material is an abstract and elemental, if oddly sterile rumination on colonial legacy and socioeconomic stagnation. Unfolding in episodic flashbacks as second-generation coffee plantation owner, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) scrambles to make her way back home after a forced evacuation of European settlers in light of an escalating civil war, the film structurally interweaves the parallel lives of the Vial family, a band of roving child soldiers scouring the countryside for “white material” trophies from fleeing settlers, and a charismatic military officer turned rebel leader known as the Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé) who has gone into hiding to recover from injuries sustained during a recent skirmish. With the family patriarch, Henri (Michel Subor) removed from day to day operations, her estranged husband, André (Christopher Lambert) seeking protection from the corrupt, warlord-like mayor (William Nadylam) by secretly agreeing to sign over the deed to the plantation, and her immature son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) unwilling to take on responsibility for the family business, Maria is left alone to manage the upcoming harvest, negotiating with former employees and impoverished villagers in an attempt to bring the coffee to market. But as agents of the civil war circle ever closer towards the near deserted plantation, Maria’s illusive quest soon becomes a journey into the heart of darkness. By decentralizing the conflict to an indeterminate country even as she incorporates real-life elements from contemporary African history (most notably, in the Boxer character who is based on assassinated Burkina Faso president, Thomas Sankara, and the induction of child soldiers in the civil wars of Angola and Sierra Leone), Denis incisively dissociates the issue of African stagnation from reductive presumptions of long-standing tribal (and implicitly localized) conflict, reframing it instead within the broader context of racial, economic, educational, and class division. It is perhaps this sense of universality that ultimately defines the form of Denis’s uncharacteristically raw and unfocused film, reflecting, like the unprocessed coffee beans, an immediacy that transcends simple economic reality and instead converges towards murkier implications of globalism and cultural survival.
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