Port Djema

The Boston Phoenix

DIRECTED BY: Eric Heumann

REVIEWED: 01-25-99

As much as Westerners would like to distance themselves from the natural and manmade catastrophes plaguing Africa over the past several years, the guilt from a colonialist past and a realpolitik present lingers. To his credit, French producer-turned-director Eric Heumann confronts that guilt, but his Port Djema provides more mannered opacity than hard-hitting insight.

Pierre Feldman (Jean-Yves Dubois) is a complacent Parisian doctor who journeys to the civil-war-torn fictional African country of the title (apparently Eritrea) on a quest to learn the fate of his friend, a missionary doctor murdered by one of the warring factions. He retraces the dead man's fatal itinerary and, escorted by a cryptic cabdriver, meets with Alice (Nathalie Boutefeu), a young Frenchwoman who may have been his friend's lover, and Jérôme (Christophe Odent), a shady French functionary who may have been involved with his friend's killers.

It's an arty, murky descent into hell related with the deliberation of Theo Angelopoulos's Ulysses' Gaze (which Heumann produced) and punctuated by jolting and eloquent images of brutality and pathos. The doctor witnesses atrocities and comes to grips with his nation's guilt and his own personal responsibility but somehow remains the same ineffectual sad-sack he started out as. Port Djema is a needful, non-preachy corrective to such kneejerk tracts as John Sayles's by-the-numbers Men with Guns, but the air of existential anomie and the vaguely sentimental conclusion seem yet another evasion of Western responsibility.

--Peter Keough

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