Coffee — it’s delicious, it’s something to be enjoyed and, for some of us, it’s an insatiable craving. Sometimes we don’t think about what coffee must go through before we can take that first exquisite sip, but we do know that a lot of work goes into it. A film offering a different perspective on the production of coffee is “White Material.”

White Material

At the Michigan
IFC

That’s actually not quite true. The film is about a struggling coffee plantation called Vial Café and its owner, a Frenchwoman named Marie (Isabelle Huppert, “I Heart Huckabees”), who is caught in the midst of her adoptive African nation’s civil war. All she wants to do is harvest a last precious crop of beans, but her workers have run out on her. They fear for their lives, as they should — the fighting is brutal and is escalating all around them. On one side are the rebels, led by an idealized fighter named “The Boxer,” who is slowly dying throughout the film. On the other side lies the oppressive former regime, grappling for power with the rebels. What results is a chaotic, screaming film fraught with bloodshed, child soldiers and idealism in the face of oppression — not exactly a fun look at our favorite morning beverage.

It’s difficult to find a true message to take away from this film. The message could lie in Marie’s steadfast desire to remain on the plantation, regardless of the fact that the French military is leaving before advising her to do the same — maybe we are supposed to feel empowered by her iron grip on what she holds dear. But then again, nothing good comes out of her remaining on the plantation, since her family is scattered and torn apart by the rebel army. Maybe the message is that people will not be silenced and will do anything to throw off the cloak of an oppressive regime or an unfair government. But that doesn’t really resonate throughout the film either — in the end, it’s the regime that maintains the power. So what’s the point?

Maybe it’s OK for a film like this not to have a “point.” From the get-go, audiences will feel an all-encompassing absorption by the script, becoming emotionally tied to Marie’s fruitless attempts to keep the plantation. Filmgoers will pity her son, who is slowly losing his grip on sanity in the face of the civil war. They will detest the actions of the rebel army, yet pity their failing cause. They will ultimately abhor the oppressive regime that triumphs. The camerawork is gritty and gorgeous, the tension is palpable and the characters are so convincing that it’s like audiences are looking in on a documentary.

It’s one of those films that keep hearts and minds racing throughout. It’s one of those films that, when the lights come on at the end, a collective exhale by the audience can be heard amidst expressions of “That’s the ending? I can’t believe it.” One that can be appreciated for being great without pandering to a traditional cut-and-dry storyline. If audiences seek a film that will stay with them for once, they need look no further than “White Material.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.