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The Last Face (2017) Review

Troubling film about humanitarian efforts in Africa has some good moments.

The Last Face is a 2017 drama about a director of an international aid agency in Africa who meets a relief aid doctor amidst a political/social revolution, and together face tough choices.

The challenge in a film like is not the message, one that is quite certainly urgent and prescient but rather the cause, something that has yet to truly stir large public opinion or support, something obviously the film hopes to change. The world over, humanitarians put their lives in danger to aid and protect those in great need, and movies before have tried to put a face to it with romance and adventure, though none to any great success. Now comes The Last Face, an often chilling drama that attempts to further expose the atrocities of violence in Africa amid the relationship of two doctors amid the turmoil.

Wren (Charlize Theron) is a celebrated non-practicing doctor who is drawn to the plight of those suffering from Liberia to Sudan and from South Africa is put in charge of raising awareness. She sets off to the war torn regions and along the way, meets Miguel (Javier Bardem), a charitable man who has been in the depths of it for far too long, his dedication wearing him down. As  years pass, Wren sees first hand the horrors of those impacted by the cruelty of local military and guerrilla forces, she is comforted by Miguel and comes to take a new stand against the injustices, turned forever by the darkness she has witnessed.

Directed by Sean Penn, The Last Face is a story of contrasts, that of the immeasurable suffering of those in parts of Africa juxtaposed to the comforts of Europe and the West. It starts in a lavish opera house where Wren is to give a speech about her experiences, then flashes back to the trauma she has barely lived through. Penn makes no effort to curb the horror, detailing shootouts and raids, gruesome suffering and yet takes the time to show how a young population growing up within it knows no difference and between the bombings and gun battles, lives and plays.

The Last Face
The Last Face, 2017 © River Road Entertainment

Penn, whose previous films have also been in-depth character studies, including Into the Wild and The Crossing Guard puts a little less effort into the main characters, though not at a sacrifice to the story. Much time is devoted to the people in need and while he goes for the jugular in terms of manipulating the viewer for maximum emotional impact–a prolonged birthing scene following a harrowing attack is one example–most of it does as intended. Part of the problem is in fact the push for a romance, something that seems entirely unnecessary and off the point, but perhaps remotely believable in that even in the worst of humanity, we still need each other. It’s a tenuous reach.

The Last Face is a different kind of movie, the tone and approach far less conventional, with Penn clearly trying something new. It has many strong moments and we get a terrifying sense of the reality even as it holds onto a hyper-realism. Soiled slightly by some odd narration that admittedly makes sense based on the set up, it attempts to provide Wren with more depth, though only serving to distract. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd does captures great and terrible majesty in the lands and Hanz Zimmer‘s rare, quiet score breathes a lot of life into the film, which in many ways feels like it could pass for a documentary. While it strays from its message, Penn’s ambition drives the movie, the sheer impact of its authenticity keeping this a sometimes heartbreaking experience, but it’s too far off the path to truly do what it hopes. Watching the natives of these troubled countries suffer so while these two beautiful people fall into a long and troubled relationship somehow feels off. Not nearly in the same league as his earlier work, it remains a solid if not memorable watch.

The Last Face (2017) Review

Movie description: The Last Face is a 2017 drama about a director of an international aid agency in Africa who meets a relief aid doctor amidst a political/social revolution, and together face tough choices. The Last Face is a 2017 drama about a director of an international aid agency in Africa who meets a relief aid doctor amidst a political/social revolution, and together face tough choices.

Director(s): Sean Penn

Actor(s): Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem, Adèle Exarchopoulos

Genre: Drama

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