Cinema Arabiata regulars will have noted that the blog has discussed films that I have deemed worthy of celebration or at least of viewing and consideration. Indeed, since I don’t get paid to do this and considering the related time commitment I had resolved to focus on films that have at least drawn me in, even when faulty in one way or another.
Why then review a film as poor as Black Gold. Not many readers will have heard of it, considering that the film has failed to garner festival recognition or box office returns (Non-US gross returns of less than 10% of its $55 million budget, according to IMDBPro). Noting that none of the reviews that have contributed to the film’s tomatometer of 5% had an Arab name attached to it, I thought it worthwhile to lay into the film Arab style.
I was expectedly suspicious about Black Gold when I first read about it. Readers who have seen how Hollywood cinema has depicted Arabs historically would understand why. Moreover, even though Black Gold was being backed, I had learned, by Qatari state arm Doha Film Institute, European actors had been cast so I knew I had “olive face” not to look forward to (not so much it turned out, though the kohl appeared to have been applied with a paint brush). Most worrisome was the novel upon which the screenplay had been based. Written in 1957 by Swiss retired race car driver Hans Ruesch, who had written Top of the World, upon which was based the screenplay to The Savage Innocents, whose conceptions of the lives of the Inuit people seemed drawn from apocryphal 19th century white explorer accounts, I had suspected that the novel upon which Black Gold’s screenplay was based would peddle similar toss. After watching the film, I reluctantly considered as wont reading the operative novel South of the Heart: A Novel of Modern Arabia/The Great Thirst/The Arab, until I soon came upon the following image online and remembered not only that I didn’t do this for a living, but also that I simply couldn’t afford to potentially smash that much furniture.
I don’t wish to dwell on the insolent, insipid plot. It involves a longstanding feud between two Arabian Peninsula monarchs that takes on greater stakes when oil is discovered in a territory that the two had agreed neither would claim. Their offspring get involved: two die, one rises to power and one gets pregnant. At the end of the film, I was eager to ascertain that no camels had been hurt in the making of the picture, but it seems that I couldn’t even console myself with such news.
How about some gems from the screenplay—their speakers unimportant:
“You were so exotic, like a boy from a book”
“I’ve had myself dressed as a Bedouin girl for you”
“I thought I’d hate him, but I don’t. He reminds me of a young owl, something very sharp behind all that blinking.”
“All that I know about gold is that it seems to fluctuate in value”
“… And men and women fit together like water and thirst. When they meet they are everything. Alone we are nothing”
Antonio Banderas (Prince Nesib) outdoes himself. I was certainly surprised that a film funded by the Doha Film Institute would cast a ham as one of the leads. Near perpetually suppressing a smile, he seemed (it’s the paycheck, stupid), while drawling and garbling the ends of his utterances in a Spanish accent, I thought it astute that the markedly more talented Mark Strong (Sultan Amar) had resolved to wince himself through the whole picture. At times while watching, I thought to stop the film to check if Strong had developed dyspepsia during production. I also developed a notion for what Strong could have been thinking about when he shed that heartfelt tear at the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, his film following.
Freida Pinto plays Prinse Nesib’s daughter Leyla. Literate (as are all lead characters, which is preposterous for the story’s period of the 1930s or so), willful and bold enough to admonish her father (also preposterous), to dun then expose a stylish two piece negligee for her “night of entry” (as Arabs call it) to her groom Awda (Tahir Rahim, in a rehash of his performance in the superb A Prophet), but not empowered enough to venture out of her “harem” except for a quickie in the curtained backseat of the royal automobile, between the mansion entrance and the gate, as she bids her husband farewell.
Don’t ask me what the Doha Film Institute was thinking in backing this project. Some have described it as a lost opportunity. I qualify that there was never an opportunity, and audiences can smell rubbish this putrid even when it’s been garishly dressed, which must have been why Warner Bros had decided not to release Black Gold theatrically in the US.
Black Gold is a dish both distasteful and unhealthful. As I digested it, following its completion, I felt bloated and empty at once. If you’ve considered watching it dear readers then do yourselves a favor and make a hearty sayadiya instead.