Sunday, September 28, 2014

SDFF ’14: Where the Road Runs Out

Equatorial Guinea is the only African country whose official language is Spanish. However, it still will not be able to submit the first feature film produced entirely within the country for foreign language Academy Award consideration, because the overwhelming majority of its dialogue is in English. Still, the Equatorial Guineans can work towards other milestones, like improving its rankings on Freedom House’s index of civic rights and Reporters Without Borders’ measure of press freedoms. Political realities are scrupulously ignored, but the country’s desperate poverty offers a handy path to redemption in Rudolf Buitendach’s Where the Road Runs Out (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 San Diego Film Festival.

George Mensah is one of the world’s foremost experts on crop fertility, but the Rotterdam-based scientist is stuck in a boozy rut. When his old do-gooder friend Cheese finally dies from his enlarged heart (nobody can miss that symbolism), he heads to Equatorial Guinea to take stock of the research station and orphanage he thought he had helped underwrite. However, when he reaches the remote community, he finds ramshackle buildings instead of the state-of-the-art facilities he expected. Their mutual friend Martin may have some explaining to do.

Nevertheless, “Mr. George” reluctantly gets involved with Jimmy, an annoyingly heartwarming orphan, given a leg brace for extra added heart-string pulling. He also haltingly courts Corina, the orphanage’s headmistress. She is not a nun, but she had more or less resolved to live that way, until Mensah turned up.

Isaach De Bankolé (recognizable from many Jim Jarmusch and Claire Denis films) is a powerful screen actor, who ought to get more opportunities as a leading man (he happens to be married to Cassandra Wilson, so at least he gets to hear a lot of great music). Despite some slapsticky moments, he maintains his presence and dignity as Mensah, but this will not be the film he shall be remembered for.

Frankly, Juliet Landau and Stelio Savante provide decent support as Corina and Martin, respectively. However, there is way too much precociousness going on for safe adult consumption. There is a rule here against singling out young actors for criticism, so let’s just leave it at that.

There are some perfectly nice sentiments in Road, but its manipulations are not exactly subtle. Cinematographer Kees Van Oostrum makes the countryside sparkle, but the day to day realities of Equatorial Guinea are actually quite grim for those who are not connected with the government. It is a conspicuous blind spot that makes it hard to give the film the love it so obviously craves. Only for diehard Bankolé fans who do not mind some easy sentimentality, Where the Road Runs Out screens again this afternoon at the SDFF and will next play the Heartland Film Festival on October 18th, 20th, 24th, and 25th.