FNE at Cannes 2016: Review: The Last Face

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CANNES: The Last Face which screens in competition is Sean Penn’s fifth outing as a director and unfortunately it also might just be his least successful film to date. 

While Penn’s good intentions are obvious and the leading actors Javier Bardem and Charlize Theron are A-list talents this does not necessarily add up to great filmmaking.

The film is a love story set against the back-drop of war-torn Liberia. Dr Miguel Leon played by Javier Bardem is a relief-aid doctor and Dr Wren Petersen played by Charlize Theron is the director of an international aid organisation. They have a mutual passion for the value of life but they are in direct opposition about how to achieve their goals of saving lives and solving conflicts.

If this sounds idealistic and high-minded, in theory, it is. But in Penn’s film it comes off more like two celebrity do-gooders go to Africa and rather than being shown real people in real situations we are more focused on the Bardem and Theron Hollywood love story set against a third-world tragedy. Both are ardently dedicated to humanity and terribly serious about their work. But somehow it all comes across as just a bit too sincere and heart-rending to be real or to move us. This is sincerity turned into self-righteousness.

The film shows a war-torn Africa and suffering refugees set against beautifully shot scenes of the African countryside. But it is all just a bit too much like Terrence Malick for comfort and if the camerawork were not enough we have a voice from Theron over telling us about her character’s feelings and thoughts.

The main story follows the clash between lovers Miguel who came up the hard way as an orphan who excelled academically became a brilliant and dedicated but tough doctor and Wren from a privileged background as the daughter who now runs a medical charity MDM founded by her father and who feels she constantly has to prove herself.

Both of these good-looking people are busy finding themselves and giving meaning to their lives in war-torn Africa. When the MDM group is forced to evacuate when it comes under rebel attack Miguel and Wren flee through the jungle together and a romance is sparked.

The next time we see them together in another refugee camp and Wren is questioning whether there is really any use in what they are trying to do as they are overwhelmed by the violence around them as they try to save lives. These are noble characters and we are meant to feel their pain for the inhumanity around them. But the characters are too shallow and there is too much cliché.

Eventually these lovers of humanity can no longer maintain their own relationship and they split up. Penn’s attempt to try to make love between a man and a woman and the struggles they go through because of their relationship some kind of metaphor for the struggles that the refugees of a brutal African war somehow falls flat.

Penn is a talented director and these are two great actors but there is an overdose of sincerity here that leads to a film that fails to ignite our emotions in the way it was meant to do.

The Last Face (USA)
Directed by Sean Penn
Cast: Javier Bardem, Charlize Theron, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Jared Harris, Jean Reno