Had a line from the lovely Marie and the gang at Alpha1Media International a couple of days back who mentioned they’d caught the new Antonio Banderas-Jean-Jacques Annaud 20’s set flick “Black Gold” over at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in Qatar. Really keen to hear more on the film, I pushed for their thoughts. They went one better – in between screenings they were kindly jotted down their thoughts on the film for us…
Cinema about the Arabian Peninsula is dangerous terrain, like quick sand. Leaving aside religious epics, the choice for Hollywood often seems to be fact or fiction set in the early 20th century. When it’s fiction, the results, such as “Hidalgo”, are often forgettable. When it’s fact, the results, such as “Lawrence of Arabia” are sometimes legendary. “Black Gold” is indeed fiction and better than “Hidalgo”, but naturally a few sand dunes afar from the historical epic about the first Arab Revolt.
“Black Gold” is a story about two Arabian chieftains who have been at war about a piece of disputed land, the Yellow Belt. At a final truce, one chieftain, Nassib (Antonio Banderas) asks his foe, Amar (Mark Strong) to offer his two sons as hostages to Nassib to guarantee there will be no further hostilities between the two in claims over the Yellow Belt. Amar agrees and peace reigns. Fifteen years later, American prospectors for oil come to the region, and inform Nassib that there are millions of oil reserves beneath the disputed land. Nassib allows for oil exploration to take place in the Yellow Belt, igniting a war with Amar. Amar’s son, Prince Auda (Tahar Rahim) is caught in the middle of the war between the two chieftains, one his real father and the other a foster father, before the situation becomes further complicated when Auda is forced to marry Nassib’s daughter, Princess Lallah (Freida Pinto).
Starring Tahar Rahim, the lead in the French film “A Prophet”, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2009, “Black Gold” does also have many more familiar faces to Hollywood audiences such as Antonio Banderas and Mark Strong as well as up-and-coming stars such as Freida Pinto and Riz Ahmed. Each actor has previously starred in a film related to the Arab and Islamic world, which arguably played a role in their casting: Antonio Banderas starred as an Iraqi diplomat-cum-warrior in “The 13th Warrior”, Mark Strong as the Jordanian head of intelligence in “Body of Lies”, Freida Pinto as a Palestinian girl in “Miral” and Riz Ahmed as a satired British-Pakistani terrorist in “Four Lions”.
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, who has previously directed “Enemy at the Gates” and “Seven Years in Tibet”, “Black Gold” is essentially a labour of love from Tarak Ben Ammar, the French-Tunisian producer whose credits include “Life of Brian” and “Hannibal Rising”. Ben Ammar has held the film options for ‘The Great Thirst’, a book on which “Black Gold” is based for three decades. The film was shot in Tunisia, where filming was affected by the revolution in January, and also in Qatar, where it had its world premiere at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival on October 25, 2011.
The pitch for “Black Gold” promotes it as “Lawrence of Arabia” meeting “There Will Be Blood”, with the title of the film referring to the other commodity in the world, apart from gold, which shakes global markets – oil. Nevertheless, the discovery of oil on the Arabian Peninsula only plays an incidental role in the story, rendering the title a misnomer, and leading to a greater comparison with “Lawrence” & “Hidalgo”.
The plot of the film admirably displays Arabian tribal egos at work, and provides a sometimes fresh perspective on a part of the world, the Arabian Peninsula, which is a newsmaker, but rarely filmed. The landlocked deserts parts of the Arabian Peninsula historically produced tribal chieftains living in fortified gated cities who were the product of their harsh environment, and this is a successful vision of their story. Those who lived on the coasts of the Peninsula, and near the sea, tended to be a lot more friendly and cosmopolitan as sea-faring trade and commerce was the bedrock of their society. Their story is yet to be told.
Rahim plays the anti-hero of “Black Gold”, bespectacled when we first see him and who despite being a prince, is also appointed as a librarian. His emergence as a genuine hero never seems to truly materialise – at one juncture, a twist in the plot involving death would have been welcome. For those who wished to see an older Zorro, and don’t wish to watch the animated Puss in Boots, Banderas is indeed humourous. James Horner’s soundtrack, inspired by “Mark of Zorro” does not help evoke memories of the Latin swashbuckler. Pinto is a princess who spends most of the day in the harem – but her talents would have been better utilised in unexpected situations, like wielding a weapon in an action scene or being more involved in desert politics. In fact, “Prince of Persia”, though set centuries before “Black Gold”, had a more empowered female lead than the eye-candy role Pinto gets to play here.
At the fore of standout performances is Riz Ahmed, the Oxford-educated actor and musician (MC) who waxes lyrical in a few scenes as the sage Ali, another son of Amar, and is a pleasure to watch, despite some slips into Estuary English. His lead role in the forthcoming “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, besides Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland and Liev Schreiber, should propel him into greater prominence. The best cinematic shot in the film is Ahmed seated beside Mark Strong, who plays his father, with aquiline nosed-profiles almost etched into the landscape. Strong’s portrayal of Amar is stoic, and further explains his role as Hollywood’s first-choice of whom its leading men should face-off with.
“Black Gold” is a good effort – and a marked improvement on “Hidalgo”. As for stories about the Arabian Peninsula, it will soon its gets it new shimmering face in celluloid form come December 2011, when the silicon of sand becomes glass, and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai becomes the centrepiece of Mission Impossible IV: Ghost Protocol.