This whistleblower drama, co-produced by the Dardenne brothers, is buoyed by strong performances
Dir: Farid Bentoumi. France/Belgium. 2020. 89mins
Dark Waters, Official Secrets and The Report are some of the recent films to prove the continued viability of the whistleblower drama. Inspired by true events, Farid Bentoumi’s second feature Red Soil offers another case of a plucky individual’s principled stand against corporate corruption. Bentoumi adheres to a familiar template, but the efficient storytelling and strong performances should achieve modest returns for a Cannes Label title co-produced by the Dardenne brothers.
The result is all a little too neat and tidy
An arresting beginning finds ER nurse Nour (Zita Hanrot) hurtling along hospital corridors in a frantic bid to save a patient. The outcome prompts her to quit her job and return home to her father Silmane (Sami Bouajila). He secures her a position as a resident nurse at the chemical plant where he has worked for the past 30 years. But the fact that nobody turns up for her first class in CPR confirms the casual attitude to health and safety held by workers and bosses alike.
Bentoumi sketches in a strong sense of family and community. The plant employs over 200 workers and is essential to the economy of the area. It is a place where everyone knows each other and looks out for their colleagues. Nour’s family is equally close-knit, and her emotional father is thrilled at her homecoming, especially as it coincides with her sister’s impending marriage.
Inevitably, Nour discovers that nothing is allowed to stand in the way of the plant’s operations and its importance to the local economy. Accidents are never reported, cancer rates are ignored, and the dumping of toxic material in a local lake is supposedly a thing of the distant past. Workers and management collude in ensuring that the status quo holds.
The extent of the pollution finds its strongest visual expression in a view of the local lake — a terracotta puddle surrounded by a landscape stained as red as Mars. It is a stark contrast to the bright green trees that circle and conceal it from prying eyes. A clandestine visit convinces Nour that it is essential to speak out, particularly once she finds an ally in freelance investigative journalist Emma (Celine Sallette).
The most interesting element of Red Soil is the way in which the bigger issues become intensely personal. There is a fond chemistry between Hanrot and Bouajila that makes the collision between daughter and father the emotional core of the film. Nour’s urge to do the right thing and Silmane’s instinct to keep everything concealed creates an impossible divide. Bentoumi generates his most tense sequence by effectively cross-cutting between the daughter’s conscience in action and the false hope of a meeting that appears to vindicate the father.
The smooth direction and the compact narrative ensure that there is little room for complexity in Red Soil. There are plot elements that feel intrusive, Olivier Gourmet is disappointingly underused as the implacable head of the plant, and the gallop towards a finale involves reckless actions that stretch credibility. The result is all a little too neat and tidy, suggesting a film that might have benefitted from a longer running time.
Production companies: Les Films Velvet, Les Films Du Fleuve
International sales: WTFilms, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producer: Frederic Jouve
Screenplay: Farid Bentoumi, Samuel Doux
Editing: Geraldine Mangenot, Damien Keyeux
Cinematography: George Lechaptois
Production design: David Faivre
Music: Pierre Desprats
Main cast: Zita Hanrot, Sami Bouajila, Celine Sallette, Olivier Gourmet