The White Masai
Directed by Hermine Huntgeburth
Written by Johannes W. Betz
Starring Nina Hoss and Jacky Ido
There are two stories in The White Masai but, alas, only one verdict. The first tells the familiar tale of a pale Western woman vacationing in a hot Third World country and throwing herself at an even hotter local hunk. The second tries to be a sensitive twist on that theme: Instead of the man vying to marry his way out of poverty, the woman decides to marry her way in, and the movie shifts to become a stranger-in-a-strange-land yarn, where culture clashes play out on a bed of passion. But the clashes are just strung together episodically, like check-points on a journey leading nowhere special, leaving the characters to disappear behind the incidents. We want to know the lovers yet never really get the chance, and the result is a small picture painted on a epic canvas.
The canvas is contemporary Africa, Kenya to be precise, where Carola (Nina Hoss) and her Swiss boyfriend are nearing the end of their stay at a luxury resort. Then, on a crowded ferry, she happens to lock eyes with Lemalian, a striking Samburu warrior decked out in his tribal regalia. Apparently, this and a further brief encounter are sufficient to plunge Carola into a deep swoon, such that she ditches her current beau, forgoes her return flight, and sets out to track down her heart's instant desire.
If this sounds a tad abrupt, I guess it's meant to be. Adapting Corinne Hofmann's bestseller, German director Hermine Huntgeburth wastes no time looking into any motive beyond the superficial - Lemalian's spear is impressive, Cupid's arrow is sharp, 'nuff said. Happily, at this point, what the film lacks in motivation it makes up in location. As her protagonist hops on a rickety bus to begin the quest, Huntgeburth fills the frames with shots of an Africa that doesn't make the guide books: the sweltering press of flesh, the chaotic swirl of colours, the congestion, the heat, the poverty.
Intrigued and daunted by these sights, we can't help but admire the Swiss miss's pluck in venturing into terra incognita. Her common sense is another matter entirely, especially when she finds Lemalian and they share a bout of unprotected sex, a wham-bam encounter that doubles as a painful reminder of where women rank in Samburu culture: "They come right after the goats." Still, Carola dutifully trots behind him back to his tiny village, where she bunks down in a mud hut while the script settles into its episodic checklist.
At first, the two cultures sign a relatively happy truce. The woman learns to eat dried goat meat, the man masters the art of tender foreplay; she contracts a bad case of malaria, he makes like a caring nurse. And when wedding bells ring, her dainty white dress looks mighty good against his manly black torso. Inevitably, though, rifts appear, as the customs of the country - everything from the corruption of the local chief to the practise of female circumcision - start to take a toll on the relationship. Matters come to a head when, in a burst of entrepreneurial spirit, Carola opens a successful store, whereupon Lemalian's damaged pride builds to violent jealousy which, in turn, sparks two outcomes: (1) the beginning of the end and (2) a burst of pretty mundane melodrama.
Busy with all this plotted incident, the film never gives us what we want - a peek inside the hearts and minds of our odd couple. Hoss effectively captures Carola's outer trappings (the sweat, the suffering, the Isak Dinesen toughness), but the script deprives her actor's mill of any interior grist. Ditto for Jacky Ido, who's allowed to give Lemalian little more than a warrior's stately bearing complemented by, depending on the story's twists, either a broad smile or a dark glower. However, since Cupid clearly has no place in this guy's folklore, the question cries out: What bush telegraph prompted him to bring back his pale trophy? The cry not only goes unanswered, it isn't even addressed.
The conclusion strives for a tragic poignancy but instead, and quite inadvertently, falls into a classic historical pattern. Once again, Europe travels to the African continent, enjoys its bounty, endures its hardships, and leaves with her arms much fuller than when she arrived. Bogged down in its colour-coded anecdotes, The White Masai can't even tell the plunderer from the plundered.