When the closing credits began rolling on 'White Material,' I had the same initial reaction to the ending of the film as I did with 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' - at first I was angry because it simply ended, but as I began to think about everything that happened in the last few minutes leading up to it, I pieced together exactly why that ending was chosen. As I watched the film, I liked what I was seeing. After the ending, I was extremely let down and disappointed. But upon thinking about and understanding the ending, I loved it. No other conclusion to the film could have made me love it as much as the one used.
'White Material' takes place in an African nation previously occupied by the French. The country is never named and the civil war that's spreading across the nation is fictional. The conflict at hand is meant more to define Africa than any specific nation. What we see in the film could very well be taking place in numerous African nations at this very moment. The purpose of the film isn't all that different from the acronym T.I.A. quoted in 'Blood Diamond,' This Is Africa.
The structure of the film's narrative is very strong. 'White Material' opens with shots of a soldiers who have just overrun a rebel camp. We see a rebel leader dead on a bed, burned-out buildings and charred human remains. Everything shown draws curiosity. What just happened here and why? The answer to that question requires some explaining, and it's in that area that 'White Material' creatively begins unfolding the mystery.
A white French woman with strawberry blond hair is seen crossing a field. As she nears a road, a military convoy approaches and she hides from them in the brush. After it has passed, she climbs out and tries flagging down cars and buses – none of which stop for her. Finally, a bus slows down and won't let her board, so he climbs up the ladder on the back and holds on for dear life. At this point, with our heroine clinging to the ladder, we see her face filled with pain and we're taken to the moments in her recent past that all lead up to this moment. 'White Material' bounces back and forth from her flashbacks to the present bus ride. It isn't until the end of the film that we see how the two connect in an intense manner.
Our heroine's name is Maria Vial, a French nationalist who's been in Africa for some time now running her ex-husband's coffee plantation. Despite government warnings of approaching rebels forces who want to remove the rich and spread the wealth amongst the poor, she refuses to leave Africa and return home. Here, she serves a purpose. Maria can't imagine going back to the hustle of France, giving up her freedom and self worth in the process, so she's determined to stick it out. Having been there for so long, she feels like she's part of Africa. She believes that the rebels will see her as one of their own and leave her plantation alone.
Having a fully African staff, her employees do not see things the same way. They know about the storm that's coming – the child soldiers, the torture, the rape, and so forth. Although Maria doesn't heed the military's warning to immediately evacuate, her employees do and leave the plantation stranded just one week before harvest. Not a single hired hand sticks around.
What ensues is an intimate portrayal of what life is like in an African nation plagued by civil war. We see it from the viewpoint of a woman, a foreigner, a provider, an African, a soldier and a rebel. What happens in the end is bold and unexpected. After watching this strong moment, you'll sit there with wide eyes wondering where things go from here. Just as you're the most involved with the film as you've been the whole time, it cuts to black and the credits begin rolling. If your initial feelings of frustration and anger resemble mine, take a few minutes to think back on the last scenes. What you'll find is much more powerful than whatever the writer could have contrived, making the whole journey worthwhile.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'White Material' hits Blu-ray on a Region A BD-50 in a standard Criterion Collection square clear keepcase. Included is booklet featuring an essay by Amy Taubin which also highlights details about the film's transfer. Upon inserting the disc into your Blu-ray player, not a single thing plays before the main menu.
'White Material' has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that is presented in the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. As stated in the booklet, the transfer was supervised and approved by director Claire Denis and cinematographer Yves Cape. It's safe to assume that this is the best the film has ever looked and will ever look.
With a nice amount of film grain, 'White Material' is clear, sharp and detailed. Filmed almost entirely with natural lighting, the strong video quality does justice to the images placed on screen. Rogue strands of hair can be seen whipping through the air as Maria cruises down a dusty road on a dirt bike. Individual coffee beans can be seen amidst the thousands surrounding them in a watery vat. Aside from a few soft shots (most likely due to the film's low budget), high detail is non-stop.
Despite the horrors shown throughout the film, the picture is so enticing that it will make you want to visit Africa. The color palette gives a natural feel to the film. Vegetation carries a strong green that's only trumped by colors that shouldn't be present – especially the heavy reds. The black levels are perfect with the exception of two scenes, one in the 54th minute and the other in the 99th. Excluding those two, blacks are always deep and rich without overpowering shadows and removing details.
Edge enhancement, DNR, artifacts, bands and noise never appear, but one shot in around the 72 minute mark reveals slight aliasing in the grate covering a fan.
'White Material' features a strong French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Unless you're fluent in French, be sure to toggle the English subtitles to "on."
The lossless audio mix of 'White Material' is highly effective, truly adding to the viewing experience. The film opens with delicate stringed music. This bass-filled score swells and amplifies the tension created by the unexplained massacre shown on screen. The sweltering score frequents the mix and always brings tension along with it.
Lots of effects are spread throughout the film. The environmental sounds that often go unnoticed are exceptionally effective. From bugs chirping away at seemingly different distances from around the room to the crackling of a smoldering fire, all sounds are detailed and layered. These dynamics are present for nearly the entire duration of the film. Imaging is also effectively used several times, like in one scene where a military chopper passes above the plantation blaring warnings over the megaphone and dropping survival kits for the soon-to-be refugees.
This dynamic blend is always used for the good, knowing when to be subtle and when to shake your theater up.
Each of the three interviews included on this release were conducted exclusively for the Criterion Collection.
I've come to the conclusion that if you're leery of watching foreign films based on the fear of watching something unworthy, the only way to ensure a great viewing experience is by sticking to Criterion Collection releases. Not only is the content fantastic – the film and the features - but the video and audio qualities are also above par. 'White Material' is no exception. With superb technical specs, it offers a raw look into the African lifestyle – socially, politically, and emotionally – as gritty as it may be. The only area in which I feel this Criterion release is lacking is in special features. The interviews are informative and great, but I believe that we've come to expect more from Criterion Collection Blu-rays – especially from newer titles.