Wordless and spiritual, the survival genre and the title are the only things that Ala Eddine Slim’s narrative feature debut shares with the other upcoming movie that people will probably get this confused with. An entry in the Venice International Film Critic’s Week and the winner of the Lion of the Future award for a debut film, “The Last of Us” is a spartan work of art with a strong political sentiment that falters the watchability front.
Whatever narrative “The Last of Us” provides is established and resolved in the film’s opening minutes. The protagonist, portrayed by Tunisian artist Jawhar Soudani, cryptically dubbed N, and his companion attempt to emigrate from Tunisia. The plan fails and the companion doesn’t quite make it. N then wanders for a bit. He steals a boat and attempts escape through sea, before being thrust into a forest. In a jarring moment, the man lets out a scream after falling into a trap laid by an older Man, draped in furs and camouflage, whom the credits dub M (Fethi Akkari). The two may be timeless iterations of the same person — and they eventually develop a wordless bond. From then on, the film is focused on survival, with a slight twist.
At times the film resembles a documentary as the forest is explored on objective terms, and survival is gritty and raw. Occasionally it mutates into a work of surrealism that transcends the physical world, as the forest becomes a spiritual land, and present and future exist in an esoteric harmony. Impressionism occasionally invades the frame and distorts reality, and a calm tension escapes from the contrast. These genuine moments of balance are rare however; the realist tendencies of the film are not so gripping, nor are the fantastical elements of the film entirely intelligible.
Soudani’s performance is a blank slate, a reflection of his surroundings. He is hardly a character so much as a universal stand-in for the impoverished immigrant. As the film progresses, he embeds himself into the environment, both physically in a camouflage fur get-up, and spiritually with the environment, which consumes him — a pseudo-home answer to and a constant reminder of his displacement.
As a whole, the work feels almost too minimalist at times, and it is hard not to consider it somewhat pretentious (poetic intertitles that are almost entirely elusive divide the two halves, along with inexplicable constellation-esque drawings mapping out the words). Amine Messadi’s cinematography certainly looks pretty consistently — incoherence in the first half through lighting and fog is offset by his use of texture in the second half. And while Slim makes sure to prioritize his visuals, as is true to arthouse fashion, he holds for unbearably long measures that feel more meandering than purposeful. Because of that, and a script that seems entirely one-note, the film is quite the slog to sit through; challenging, but hardly rewarding. [C]