When Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) arrives at Guantánamo Bay, she’s wearing sunglasses. Her chic white bob and blue button-down shirt are hardly provocative, but a guard advises her to wear a hijab anyway – the detainees have been known to spit at women. The moment recalls Foster’s trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, met with a different bodily fluid in the bowels of a psychiatric hospital.
The Mauritanian, a post-9/11 legal drama based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s 2015 memoir Guantánamo Diary, is less concerned with the particular psychology of its incarcerated protagonist than with the political machinery that kept him behind bars without an official criminal charge for 14 years.
The excellent Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) brings softness and seriousness to Slahi, but overripe flashbacks to his horrific torture are shot with a cartoonish edge. It’s a double bind: depict an interrogation scene too realistically and run the risk of torture porn, but veer too off-kilter and the effect is distancing. Here, the styling is at odds with the otherwise straightforward courtroom narrative. The prestige procedural elements work better; the real-life story is enraging, and it’s fun to see Benedict Cumberbatch’s morally conflicted military prosecutor lock horns with Foster’s icy human rights lawyer.