The empty rows of seats inside the cinemas of Venice is a disconcerting sight, but it’s got nothing on the wide-open spaces of The Furnace, a brutish Aussie western that’s playing out in the festival’s Orizzonti sidebar. Social distancing is a necessity; all the men have gold fever. Sidle up too close to a rival prospector and more likely than not he’ll put a bullet in your brain.
While Roderick MacKay’s debut feature is finally more about action than history, this nonetheless disinters a fascinating lost subculture. In the late 19th-century, the British empire exported camels and their handlers to the deserts of western Australia. The handlers were predominantly Indian, Iranian and Afghan labourers, and their job was to ferry supplies between the settlements and the mines, often relying on indigenous locals for guidance. Evidence suggests that many were eventually absorbed and assimilated by these communities.
Hanif (Ahmed Malek) is what some refer to as a “cameleer” and others call a “ghan”, a catch-all racist term that covers Sikhs and Muslims alike. Out in the desert, in the dead of night, Hanif stumbles across a white man named Mal (David Wenham), who has a bullet wound in his side. He looks as though he’s been rolled in the sand and sounds as if he’s been gargling with gravel. And in his saddlebag sits £3,000-worth of gold bars, each one bearing the tell-tale mark of the Crown. “The yellow rock, they go mad for it,” sighs the wise, weathered chief of the Kalkoogans.
Try to catch this on a wide screen if you can. The vistas are savage and simple, an arrangement of bright bands of colour. Blue sky at the top, red desert below. Yet on the ground, the action quickly turns messy. Mal plans to take the gold to a furnace in a one-horse town called Kalgoorlie, where he says he has a friend who will melt it down. But now the gold squad are in pursuit and its leader, it seems, was already half-crazed to begin with. “We make a good team, you and me,” gasps the bandit – and he could be referring to Hanif or the camel.
Is it obvious to point out that The Furnace is a B-movie? MacKay’s film is as tough as old leather and as unadorned as cow hide. There’s something of the 1960s spaghetti western to its tense standoffs around the campfire, even a nod to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to its climactic showdown. But by this point Hanif is in for the ride – the temperature is climbing and it’s thoroughly enjoyable to see how this one will play out. We’re immersed in the action, living each twist and turn of the trail. When Hanif’s camel senses water and starts to kick up its hooves, it’s all we can do not to break into a run.