Last Face, The (2016): Penn’s Film, Worst Entry in Cannes Competition

Centering on the crises in war-torn African nations, The Last Face, director Sean Penn’s embarrassing new melodrama, is the weakest film in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Fest.

For those critics who question the inclusion of this turgid, embarrassing feature in the most selective and prestigious series, my answer is two-fold: star power in front of the camera and talent behind it. (They also look good on the red carpet).

Several of the movies directed by Penn have shown at the festival, and he served as president of the Jury in the 2008 edition. Perhaps more importantly, the feature boasts two handsome and talented actors, Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem, both Oscar winners.

Problem is, The Last Face is not even effective as a romantic melodrama about the relationship between a charming doctor named Miguel (Bardem) and an international aid organizer, Wren (Theron).

For a short while, the broader political context, in which the courtship blossoms, matters, and we get to see the two at work. But after the first reel or so, the troubled love affair takes over and the graver issues of devastating wars, economic problems and poverty takes a second seating.

The tale spans over a decade, during which Wren, a humanitarian doctor, reflects through flashbacks on her work in rough areas like Sierra Leone and Liberia, and on her failed relationship with Miguel.

After meeting in Monrovia, the couple worked together, taking care of the needs of the wounded and starving individuals across Africa. They do not always agree on the most effectual strategies to be used, and we get their contrasting POVs, which are based on differing ideologies as well as personalities.  For example, should the focus be on the ground operation (the day to day trench work), or should they try to raise awareness of the severe issues by approaching the media, which is obviously neglectful and ignorant.

This is yet another failed attempt as socially conscious cinema, seen through Western eyes by both creators (the script is by Erin Dignam) and performers.

How else to explain that fact there are no major African characters.  The rest of the international cast includes Gallic Adèle Exarchopoulos and Jean Reno and Brit Jared Harris as doctors working alongside the two leads. But even they play one-dimensional, underdeveloped characters in a saga that comes perilously close to being a star vehicle and a two handler pseudo epic.

The suffering and intolerable conditions of the local residents serve as turning points in the plot, and more than once we get the impression that Miguel and Wren really love and need each other and would have embarked on a smoother path if only their lives were not interrupted and disrupted by the unbearably cruel surroundings.

The Last Face is a decidedly step down for Penn as filmmaker, whose last directorial effort was the fascinating feature, Into the Wild, in 2007.  I have no doubts that Penn’s goal was well intended, hoping to highlight major political and socio-economic problems through the story of one tumultuous affair between individuals who seem unable to reconcile their politics and professional work with their personal needs and desires.

Running time: 131 Minutes