December 14, 2006

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Blood Diamond (R)
Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou make a good argument for keeping your bling to cubic zirconia in Blood Diamond, a bloody drama about life in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s that’s got “for your Oscar consideration” written all over it.

And first in line for the little gold statue (or at least for a nomination) will likely be Hounsou, who here plays Solomon Vandy, a fisherman in Sierra Leone who is pushing his son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers) to get a good education so he can grow up to be a doctor. That’s if he gets to grow up — one person’s life in this war-torn country is fairly cheap, as we see when a rebel army (made up in large part of young boys and their only-slightly-older stupid teenage leaders) tears through Solomon’s village. They kill indiscriminately, cut off limbs and capture men like Solomon who they think are strong and will make good workers in their mines. Solomon’s family gets away, but he is enslaved and made to mine a river for diamonds. Despite watching guards murder men around him who they suspect are attempting to steal even a fragment of the gem, Solomon hesitates when he finds a large pink diamond. Perhaps sensing that it is his family’s ticket out of the madness, he tries to hide it but is discovered just as government forces attack the camp. A rebel leader knows that Solomon has hidden the diamond but he and Solomon wind up in jail, momentarily protected by their shared incarceration.

And it’s a crowded jail, for it also houses Danny Archer (DiCaprio), a white South African who makes his money smuggling guns, diamonds and probably whatever else people will pay big money for. He hears the rebel leader talk about the diamond and decides to bail Solomon out of jail with an offer to help the man find the diamond, the proceeds from the sale of which could help him find his family and get them out of the country.

Eventually, Solomon agrees to this bargain — sensing perhaps that he can somewhat trust Danny as long as Solomon is the only one who can find the diamond. His desire to find the diamond and buy his family’s way out of the country becomes even stronger when he realizes that his son has been captured and forced into the rebel army.

The journey back to the mine is perilous, with rebels having taken over the capital and the countryside being one large bloody battlefield. Along the way, they are aided and joined by Maddy (Jennifer Connelly), an American journalist who has the hots for Danny even through she knows he’s a troublemaker.

The most telling line in a movie full of telling lines and moralizing exposition comes when Solomon, talking to a man in yet another devastated village, tells the man that Danny is just another crazy white man driven to find diamonds. I hope they never find oil in this country, the man responds, then we’ll really be in trouble. The movie offers no solution for the plight of third world nations, especially those cursed with stuff the Western world wants, but it suggests that Westerners seldom improve the situation. Maddy, arguably the most morally upright of the Westerners in Sierra Leone, is seen as wielding a relatively weak power in her power-of-the-pen. Just telling people about hacked-off limbs and child soldiers isn’t enough to counter the engagement-ring lust created by those DeBeers “diamonds are forever” ads.

A sideplot involves Danny and his former military commander/colleague in the smuggling trade (Arnold Vosloo). They are both Africans by birth but white Africans, making their relationship to the land and its conflicts complicated. They have a similar sense of patriotism as black Africans but by virtue of skin color their ability to change and exploit the circumstances of a country is much greater.

The movie handles these themes ambitiously if not always successfully. There is a tendency toward speechifying in a way that repeats the facts of the many wrongs committed against the country and its people by outside influence and inside corruption without really illuminating the situation. Particularly in the dialogue given to Connelly’s character, there is an Aaron Sorkin-ish finger-wagging that muddies the effects of the film’s shocking images.

The real rawness in the movie comes from Hounsou’s character, who is spared the soliloquies on politics or race relations but acts entirely with the fear and desperation of a man consumed with saving his family. The movie holds itself back from making him a saintly character and lets him be a man, one trying to operate in an insane world that has knocked away rational thinking. He pours himself into this role and the result improves the entire movie. Blood Diamond reminds me in many ways of the above-average but not stellar Syriana from 2005. While several of that film’s characters offered up good performances, however, none turned in the completely engrossing, thoroughly inhabited performance that Hounsou does here. In this month packed full films with Oscar aspirations, Hounsou performance is one of the first real standouts. B+

Rated R for strong violence and language. Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Charles Leavitt and C. Gaby Mitchell, Blood Diamond is two hours and 18 minutes and is distributed in wide release by Warner Bros.

— Amy Diaz