Though it takes place in belly of the infamous Guantanamo Bay, the story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi is ultimately about one man’s quest for freedom against a corrupt system.
But what real freedom means to him may surprise you.
Set in the early 2000s, The Mauritanian tells the tragic and true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), a man who was arrested shortly after 9/11 due to his potential connections to Bin Laden and the Taliban. Although he remained steadfast in his innocence, Salahi was detained and shipped to Guantanamo Bay for further questioning about his involvement in the attacks on the World Trade Centre. Facing the death penalty, Salahi is offered counsel by defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley). However, as Hollander and Duncan continue to unravel their client’s story, they also potentially uncover a far-reaching conspiracy that could also expose corruption within the government’s military tactics.
Directed by Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland), The Mauritanian is a poignant but painful film that exposes the abuse that takes place when power gives way to fear. Due to its unflinching moments of grim and grisly torture (especially in the second act), the film may not be for the faint of heart yet it somehow feels authentic to the era. Featuring some solid performances and a well-written script, MacDonald pulls no punches in telling the story of a man who takes the blame for a country’s grief. Set against the backdrop of the racial paranoia that set in following 9/11, MacDonald use Salahi’s story as a tragic example of what happens when a nation is willing to sacrifice their morals in their search for answers. For many, Salahi’s confession became necessary, not merely to garner justice for the attacks, but also to simply have ‘someone to blame’.
Although stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Foster and Woodley all offer solid work here, the best performance of the film is reserved for Rahim who delivers a powerful performance as Salahi. Locked away in the darkest dungeons of Guantanamo Bay, Salahi’s story is an endless stream of suffering, cruelty and disappointments for a man who never receives any legal charges against him. As such, Rahim displays a complexity and emotional maturity within him as his character fights for his rights yet meets a never-ending stream of roadblocks to justice. However, even in the midst of this brutality, Rahim also brings a vibrancy and charm to his performance that lights up the screen. Despite his circumstances, Rahim shows a playfulness within his character that breathes life into a role which could have over-emphasized the violence instead of a man’s vitality.
Salahi’s journey is an absolute testament to the strength of his spiritual commitment. Despite the unbearable pain and torment that he experiences, Salahi clings to a faith that helps him to endure. By maintaining rituals of prayer and discipline, his spiritual lens allowed him to maintain hope and arguably even a positive attitude. (In fact, in the midst of his torture, one of the things he is most upset about is losing his copy of the Qur’an.) Though his days grew increasingly darker, Salahi drew strength from the light of his faith.
Most amazingly though, Salahi’s faith gave him a heart of compassion. Without giving away any spoilers, this becomes most clear in the climactic courtroom scene where, with his freedom hanging in the balance, Salahi speaks of the need to forgive his abusers and the US government. Although the justice system had failed him terribly, his confidence in the Qur’an gives him the strength to offer grace to a group of people who do not deserve it. (“In Arabic, the word for ‘free’ and ‘forgiveness’ is the same word,” he points out.) Though his fate remains undetermined at the hands of a corrupt system, Salahi doesn’t fight back with anger.
He offers freedom… to others.
Therein lies the true beauty of The Mauritanian. As a man who had his life stolen from him by an angry nation, Salahi’s grace-filled heart shines brightly. In this way, while the film’s emphasis may focus on the injustice of the military system during a turbulent era, the real story is Salahi’s understanding of what it means to be truly free.
To hear our interview with the real Salahi, click here.
The Mauritanian is available in PVOD on Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021.