“The Last Face,” starring Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem and Adèle Exarchopoulos and directed by Sean Penn, premiered in Cannes this morning. In this romance drama juxtaposed with a humanitarian action story Theron plays the director of an international aid agency who meets a Doctors Without Borders doctor (Bardem), as an armed conflict in Liberia drifts into full-on civil war.
The topic of a civil war in Liberia isn’t an easy one to confront but Penn does so head on, much to his credit. This ain’t small fry. “The Last Face,” however, isn’t Cannes material. Right away members of the media, including myself, present at this morning’s screening could see right through Penn’s immature and lightweight approach.
The film makes me question how Penn reasons with himself when he comes up with these projects. His heart is in the right place, clearly, but is he naive? Penn doesn’t handle the subject matter of armed civil conflict in Liberia–with people getting gored by machete and rocket-launchers–appropriately. He uses fast and cheap editing, at times making “Face” look either like, an ad for Patagonia, a music video or a big-budget TV series.
Penn held great material in his hand for a film but ended up making a spectacle of it, through gimmicks and editing wizardry. He won’t sell this to the Cannes press corps (expect some pretty negative ratings), being that the press corps expects to see a work of cinema. Commercially, on the other hand, the film will do well thanks to its A-lister cast.
It’s no accident that Penn should choose the subject matter of Africa and civil war. Himself, Theron, Bardem and Jean Reno all belong to this class of actors who are involved in humanitarian causes. It would be easy to resort to sarcasm (“the rich and famous and their causes”) but, causes just like theirs have helped people and changed lives. And films like this one, as poor as the reception was this morning, bring attention to Africa, its long history of civil unrest, and the countless lives that have either been lost or damaged forever
Reno, who has a smaller part in the film as an DWB doctor, has also been very active in humanitarian aid in real life. Born in North Africa, Reno commented during a press conference held here in Cannes this morning: “if one person becomes interested in Africa after watching this film, then we’ve won.”
Theron was born in Liberia, actually, where the film takes place and is well-known for her work with Africa Outreach Project and other large-scale causes.
This morning Exarchopoulos said, ”this film is a tribute to all the people involved on the ground [doing humanitarian work in Africa].”