There are films that open with proclamations like, “Based on a true story.” The Mauritanian does not equivocate, unlike the most oft used phrase, instead saying “This is a true story.” When filmmakers use words like “based,” it allows them to take the kinds of dramatic licenses they think they need in order to make them more appealing. Since these tales invariably deal with the past, this can be pretty annoying to historian like me. The truth is always better, in movies and in real life. After all, we get “. . . you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” straight from Jesus’ mouth in John 8:32. That is an apt phrase for the film. Those who made it could also claim truth because the events are well documented, and the main characters in it are all still alive. These help immensely, and they make for an experience that is both difficult to watch and uplifting. Whenever you have such a combination, you have something special.
If you do not know where the country of Mauritania is, here is a helpful link so that you can picture it. That is where The Mauritanian opens. Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) returns to his northwestern African home in time for a wedding. This happy event is interrupted when authorities show up to take him away, doing so because of his ties to Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden himself. He ends up at the infamous detainee camp at the United States military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. His case comes to the attention of Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), a lawyer with a reputation for taking on difficult cases. Her intent is to get Slahi released on the grounds of habeas corpus. Those rights, by the way, include not just being charged with a crime but the right to a speedy trial. He had received none of those things. Prosecuting the case for the government is Marine Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch). The case is made personal because Slahi is suspected of being the person who recruited the September 11th hijacker who flew the plane into the south tower of the World Trade Center. Couch’s close friend was the co-pilot of that plane. To his credit, though, he is able to put his feelings aside, and sets out on a quest to gather all the pertinent evidence he could find. He believes that only thoroughness will be able to corroborate the case, prove Slahi’s guilt, and effect execution for Slahi’s actions. Hollander is after the same evidence, and she uses her security clearances in order to gain access to all the files related to Slahi’s arrest, interrogations, and treatment. The boxes that she gets are all redacted to an absurd degree, showing that the government is attempting to stonewall her investigations. What she does have, though, are the written accounts of Slahi himself. These make up the meat of the film, and paint a sympathetic picture. Yes, he had hosted people with known terrorist ties in his home while he studied in Germany, and did receive some training with Al Qaeda. Regardless, none of these actions seemed to define his life. Yet, because another detainee had named him as a recruiter (and it is suggested that this came under duress), the United States government decides that Slahi is much more involved in terrorist activities than he lets on. Because they are so convinced of Slahi’s complicity and need his confession, after traditional interrogation tactics fail, they resort to torture. This is where the film turns truly dark, and the actions of his torturers are too reprehensible to enumerate. There are two things that Slahi clings to in order to make it through his ordeal: his innocence and faith. The records of his treatment eventually are revealed to Hollander and Couch, and they serve to change both of them. For Hollander, it humanizes Slahi. Previously, she had looked at him simply as a name on a case file. With Couch, not only does he realize that none of what Slahi confesses to is admissible in court, but it also results in a shift in his attitude towards the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The government is not too pleased that their prosecutor suddenly believes that there is no case. Their desire is solely to punish people for the September 11th attacks, and it does not seem to matter who it is they incarcerate or abuse. In turn, they take Couch off the case. Luckily, Hollander is able to get the government to agree to Slahi’s release. Unfortunately, the Obama administration appealed the decision, and while it was unsuccessful Slahi still spent another six years in prison. As the credits roll, we get to see his eventual release, and footage of the real-life people behind the characters in the movie.
The Mauritanian depicts Slahi as a basically happy person, and prayerful, despite his trials and tribulations. You get a sense of this not only from his behavior during the movie, but when you see the real Slahi at the end proudly showing off his book Guantanamo Diary and singing along to a Bob Dylan tune. He also befriended a few of his captors, and I would assume they were the ones not actually torturing him. Because of how he handles the horrors he endures, you cannot but root for him. Through his story, it also reveals a terrible time for our government. You can understand the desire to want to find those responsible for the September 11th attacks, an event that resulted in the deaths of so many thousands of innocent people. That day not only launched an international manhunt, but triggered a series of conflicts that are still being fought to this day. It has made many Americans wary of all Muslims, whether they have a connection to terrorism or not. These attitudes provide the subtext for the government’s attempt to prosecute Slahi.
The other character I am drawn to in The Mauritanian is Couch. There is a scene that particularly excited me as a Catholic, and that is when you see him at a Baptism. During this event, as we do, he renews his own Baptismal vows. As my subsequent research revealed, Couch is Episcopalian. While I was slightly disappointed (selfishly, I wanted him to be Catholic), my initial confusion was caused by many of the parallels between Our Faith and the Episcopal Church. It is a branch of the Anglican Church, or the Church of England, and in many respects it is viewed as Catholic-lite. The two biggest differences are that they do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and they allow their clergy to marry. Yet, because we are all Christians, we share an aversion to torture. This guides Couch’s actions when he discovers how Slahi was treated. Granted, he does say that he is for Slahi execution if it turns out that he is guilty in the end. Catholicism is not only against torture, but all corporal punishment. That includes those guilty of heinous crimes like the September 11th attacks. Our bodies are not our own, and the death penalty brings an unnatural end to a person who would otherwise eventually die of natural causes. In the meantime, they are able to be redeemed, and we should never stop trying to do so no matter the person. This is what happens with Slahi.
I think The Mauritanian should be seen. I cannot emphasize how tough it is to watch the torture scenes, and I briefly considered categorizing this as a horror film because of them. Thankfully, they are not a long portion of the movie, and instead it is one of triumph over persecution. Such stories are important. Persecution in all its forms is abhorrent to God. When we behave in this way towards Muslims, we further divide that which God sees as one. Catholicism is just the language God inspired in us for communing with Him. To be clear, I wish everyone would convert to Christianity, and Catholicism specifically. The path to doing so is not through violence and denunciation. Instead, we should love our neighbors, as the Bible tells us, and as Slahi clearly does.