This week's quiz question: Diamonds are a) forever, b) a girl's best friend or c) yet one more way that the West has exploited Africa, making off with its most glittering resource while leaving behind a bloody trail of violence. If you answered a) or b), you should perhaps take a look at Blood Diamond, the new action-adventure/social-message film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a smuggler who's willing to do whatever it takes to get his precious gems from the mines of Sierra Leone to the display cases of...well, you name it. And if you answered c), you may still want to check out the film. It's well written, well directed, well acted and shot entirely in Africa. Just don't expect to learn very much about the circumstances under which Sierra Leone, potentially one of the wealthiest countries in Africa, instead became the poorest in the world, thanks in large part to a civil war notorious for its brutality.
Director Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai) pitches us into this maelstrom, the streets awash in blood, the countryside a no-man's land of rebel forces whose signature is the lopping off of villagers' hands, arms or legs. But the focus remains on DiCaprio's Danny Archer, a Bogartean antihero who may or may not develop a conscience. Heftier now than when he took that fateful voyage on the Titanic, DiCaprio has transformed himself into an actor of surprising depth. And he somehow makes you forget that Blood Diamond, like so many Hollywood movies before it, reduces Africa to a romantic backdrop, although in this case we're talking about the romance of war. Also helping us forget is the presence of Djimon Hounsou as a fisherman who gets swept up in the civil war, separated from his family and forced to work in a diamond mine. With screen presence to burn, Hounsou represents the dignity that DiCaprio's Archer would gladly trade for a decent-sized sparkler.
That opportunity arises in the form of a 100-carat 'pink' that Hounsou fishes out of a river one day. What Hitchcock used to call a MacGuffin, this chunk of densely packed carbon gets the plot going and keeps it rolling along. Meanwhile, we're treated to one of the most harrowing displays of man's inhumanity to man ever filmed, Sierra Leone's 10 years of bloodshed compressed into two hours. In its depiction of mass terror, Blood Diamond doesn't give an inch to Hotel Rwanda, and you might accuse the movie of overkill if the country hadn't been guilty of the same thing. But how did things descend into such madness? That's where the movie gets a little blurry. The rebels are portrayed as merciless psychopaths, which they may well have been. But were the government soldiers any less merciless, any less psychopathic? And what role was played by De Beers, the diamond cartel that's waged a $15 million campaign to discredit the film, apparently without having seen it?
They needn't have bothered. The movie gives them a pass, in my opinion, losing them in the fog of war. Jennifer Connelly, looking like a million bucks, does show up as an American journalist who needs Archer's help to break the story on the 'Van De Kamp' cartel, but the movie's heart clearly lies elsewhere. It doesn't really care whether the poorest country in the world benefits from its own riches. It only cares whether our Bogartean antihero gets his hands on The Treasure of the Sierra Leone.