Beasts of No Nation, a new film from director Cary Joji Fukunaga (of the first season of True Detective) is among 21 works competing for the Venice International Film Festival’s Golden Lion, and it has a very good chance at winning. This is a drama about a harrowing journey of descent into the abyss: an innocent young boy is trapped between a fantastical world of make-believe and a lethal reality, which affords him no way out.
The 21st century Nigerian boy’s coming of age underlines how our upbringing shapes adulthood. We all begin as a tabula rasa, absorbed by the imaginative worlds we create, and as we go along the real world has the power to change it all. This concept is delicately represented when we are first introduced to Agu, a child villager whom we meet playing with his friends at a nearby refugee camp. He uses a broken television set to interpret a series of choreographies, as if he and his pals were small screen celebrities. Later in the day, he behaves in a tenderly mischievous way with his brother and has dinner with his family.
It’s a conventional day in a lifetime of an ordinary kid. But the happy routines of childhood are shattered when army troops from the capital city arrive to squelch a rebellion against the country’s corrupt regime. Agu will forever part from his family and find himself absorbed by the life of the young rebels led by the charismatic Commandant.
Thus begins the gauntlet of a contemporary version of The 400 Blows that’s set in an African conflict zone. The similarities with Antoine Doinel’s adventures in the François Truffaut film and Beasts of No Nation are blatant both in the child’s involuntary corrupt evolution and in the arc of some actual scenes. Agu’s interview, with a representative of social services at the refugee camp strongly resembles Doinel’s monologue addressed to a psychiatrist. They both describe in earnest, without whining, the effect adults had in shaping the young men they are today.
Also the image of the young boy running by the sea is a powerful homage to Truffaut. This cinematic moment remarks how mistreated children – despite being forced to grow fast – still possess an element belonging to their young age: the joy in playing, running free, feeling lighthearted for an instant.
Agu learns to savagely wield a machete, a gun, and his wits in guerilla battles, but part of him remains a hopeful child, still yearning to find his mother, friendship, and a path to a different life. The child soldier’s spellbinding journey into the dark heart of war becomes a boy’s quest for survival, friendship, and home.
The stirring tale features Idris Elba as the charismatic would-be warlord, known to his youthful army as Commandant, and he contrasts greatly with a widely unknown cast. Agu is played charmingly by Abraham Attah, who has the skill of maintaining an allure of magic-tinged childlikeness in the kid who is left to fend for himself – even when he is taken under the wing of a militia and molded into a regretless killer. Fukunaga’s choice to pair a regional cast of non-actors (some drawn from refugee camps) with rising leading man Elba has proved to be successful. The element of cinéma vérité enhances how the hallucinatory chaos of a war epic is seen through the eyes of a child embarking on a bloodcurdling odyssey.
The filmmaker famous for directing True Detective and Jane Eyre has managed to adapt Uzodinma Iweala’s acclaimed novel in a gritty yet transporting manner.The rawness of the shocking reality is accounted with immense delicacy. Fukunaga also uses wonderful shots playing with color and cinematography, and never gets invasive or morbid in portraying violence. He also knows to draw the camera away when the Commandant is ready to share a “secret” with Agu, making his abuse to the child just as effective without showing it to us.
Agu’s story is outstanding both in literature and on screen: the novel by the sociologist and physician, who grew up in the U.S. but spent time in Nigeria, conquered readers worldwide. Beasts of No Nation resonates immensely since it sheds a light on a horrific reality: there are an estimated 300,000 children fighting in conflicts across the globe.
The script of Beasts of No Nation is elegant, just like the novel, in refusing to judge the characters. It simply presents the staggering moral confusion that accompanies all wars, acknowledging that child soldiers have committed heinous atrocities, but notes that these acts are the effects of desperate situations. Agu personifies the unsettling yet ubiquitous pop-culture meme of modern warfare: any 11 or 12 year-old boy with an assault rifle casually draped over a bony shoulder.
Today, youth is incredibly sought after as modern fighting forces, which has triggered the international community to intervene. For instance the film shows small glimpses of the United Nations at work with refugees. Along these lines this year UNHCR is present at the Mostra d’Arte Cinematografica, to divulge the work of the Refugee Agency and gather supporters.
The surreal mayhem of war play will be released in October simultaneously to a limited number of cinemas and to Netflix’s 65 million subscribers around the world.