Hope and Glory, Post-Apartheid
By Fernando F. Croce

It's no secret that it's getting harder and harder for works of art to be recognized, but when a picture like In My Country is greeted with a chorus of tepid-to-contemptible reviews, cluelessness turns glaring. John Boorman addresses the horrors of apartheid, and all critics do is bemoan his supposed fall from kinetic stylist to preachy orator. From Michael Powell to Stanley Kramer? Hardly. The film, a splendid humanistic document, charges style with explorative morals from the very first frame, with Boorman's camera drinking in the largeness of the South African countryside before settling down to the waves of half-buried atrocities and compassion simmering through it. The time is late 1995, as the fallout of the oppressive regime is exposed at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings -- agents, torturers and other apartheid personnel were brought face to face with the families of their victims, and, upon giving truthful confession of their crimes, could be granted amnesty. South Africans, both black and white, dig at past wounds, howls of anguish and outrage ring out of the crowds, and "I was following orders" remains the mantra at the stands. "The Truth shall set us free," posters reassure, but freedom is painful.

How to evoke history without falsifying it? Unlike the tastefully rendered massacres of Hotel Rwanda, In My Country never presumes to recreate the tortures, instead letting the horrors emerge out of the voices of the victims and the oppressors, the unspeakable evoked via spoken testimony, Lanzmann-style. The hearings are filtered through the eyes of two people, Afrikaner poet and radio journalist Juliette Binoche and black Washington Post reporter Samuel L. Jackson, native and outsider, both shaken out of personal complacency by the unearthed violence, suffering and humanity. The use of an audience-identifying star couple to reflect a nation's travails has predictably received the blunt of the critics' snoring, as if proof of a filmmaker afraid to get his hands dirty by dealing directly with the people -- cinematic mittens for the cautious liberal. Actually, Boorman displays a compassionate directness to the South Africans caught in the surge of brutality and regeneration, yet he never pretends to be able to fully convey their side, like many Western directors have done before. As in Preminger's Exodus, the film charts the trajectory of a culture's conflicts as traced through expanding consciences.

To be fair, Ann Peacock's screenplay, based on Antjie Krog's book Country of My Skull, fairly toils in declamatory speechifying ("Skin is what draws the line in the sand, Jackson spouts early on), and schematic narrative (the two characters lock horns upon their first meeting; guess how long it takes for them to tumble into bed). Reviewers, of course, have rarely been comfortable with visual or emotional dynamicism, and Boorman has always been more sensitive to the image than to word. (How else to explain the reception of such remarkable works as The Exorcist II or Where the Heart Is, or even his last thriller, the underrated The Tailor of Panama?) Either way, Boorman charges every situation with a cinematic vividness that never loses sight of its humane charge -- the sudden track in to a murdered African's wailing mother has a moral-aesthetic force that blasts all of Hotel Rwanda out of the water. And if the main characters are structured as stand-ins for an audience's outraged impotence, the director's handling and the actors' performances round them out with dabs of unexpected subtlety. Binoche has a startling moment at the hearings, as her bourgeois-rebel stance cracks during a testimony and she wavers uncontrollably from giggles to distress, while Jackson locates a racial anger carried over from American soil, finding crystallized expression in his ancestors' continent.

In My Country, then, is an outsider's scrupulously judged view of foreign culture, closer to Renoir's The River or Denis' Chocolat than to the spongy lecturing of the Richard Attenborough School of Post-Colonialism Guilt. Yet it's more than that. Boorman's vision, from Point Blank to Excalibur to Hope and Glory, is a bracing, metaphysical one, people losing themselves only to find themselves in the splendor of the world around them, and over the years the director's view of humans and Nature has turned serene. The unforgettable jungles of Deliverance, The Emerald Forest, and Beyond Rangoon have become, if not quite tamed, then integrated into the overview, still capable of housing such monsters as Brendan Gleeson's calmly psychotic government sadist, yet enraptured, in the end by the life rhythms of a redemptive universe. It's no accident that the film's focus is on the forgiveness and difficult healing process inaugurated by the TRC hearings, and Boorman's perspective, far from the "touristic" one critics have found, is a global one that allows the London-born artist to shed platitudes and connect fully with the African notion of Ubuntu, evoked throughout as "humanity to others." Or, simply, "What hurts you hurts me." No antihuman cynicism here -- check out The Ring 2 for that.

*

Happiness (or, at least, some kind of closure) is Cajun music and boiled crab in the slender but affable German comedy-drama Schultze Gets the Blues. The title character (Horst Krause) is a roly-poly miner who, retired from his job with nothing to show for all the years but a rock-shaped lamp, is left with nothing to do but wait out the last years of his life in a tiny burg of awesome dreariness. Scheduled to play his usual polka number at the annual music festival, he instead uses his accordion to duplicate the zydeko rhythms he overhears on the radio and gets dissed for playing "jungle music" -- the last push he needed to pack up and take off for the American South. The first half of Michael Schorr's debut is like a parody of Aki Kaurismaki's grim-faced rigor, all overcast skies, empty chess-playing halls, trains zipping through, and revitalizing music (a doctor breaks into an aria, a waitress stamps out a flamenco). The film is too satisfied with its own shagginess, but once it hits the other side of the Atlantic it pinpoints a couple of surprising epiphanies out of a gentlemanly, nearly mute lump hitting Louisiana swamps and juke joints while waltzing serenely into the night. It's barely an anecdote, but it's comforting to think of this male-menopausal journey as a quiet rebuke to Payne's condescension in About Schmidt, a hot-tub tossed in to clinch the link.

Reviewed March 24, 2005.


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