Five Fingers for MarseillesReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/08/18 10:36:43
SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Five Fingers for Marseilles" is being labeled a "South African Western", which describes it as well as anything but also doesn't feel quite right. There's too much history to the characters, and not enough frontier, but that seems a bit like quibbling. It feels more like a western than anything else, especially once it gets to the end.The action opens not in the South African city of Marseilles, but "Railway", the black-populated township that was just outside, during the apartheid era, and introduces six kids: Zulu, the group's leader; Tau, his hard-headed brother; "Pastor" Unathi the storyteller; "Pockets" Bongani, from a richer family; "Cockroach" Luyanda, a big, quiet boy - the "five fingers" who fancy themselves rebels - and Lerato, the girl the brothers both like. A clash with the white police sends Tau on the run, where he'll eventually become an outlaw. Twenty years later, he's released from prison and decides to return home, though the Marseilles that Tau (Vuyo Dabula) finds is different: Zulu has died and his son Sizwe (Lizwi Vilakazi) is having little luck as a farmer, while Lerato (Zethu Dlomo) is one of the few that has stayed in Railway after main city's integration. Pockets (Kenneth Nkosi) is mayor, Luyanda (Mduduzi Mabaso) is chief of police, but both of them tend to let a gangster calling himself "The Ghost" (Hamilton Dhlamini) have his way. Tau had hoped to live a quiet life, but it looks like his hometown still needs heroes.
Five Fingers takes the shape of a Western, and a beautiful one. The deserts and scrublands of South Africa feel just as open as those of California, dangerous and beautiful. Director Michael Matthews and his crew never pretend that it's anything but the late twentieth century, but by and large make the movie feel like it's got a foot in multiple eras - the shantytown of Railway feels like a western town, there aren't a lot of familiar product logos on display, and some of the wardrobe and prop choices feel meant to evoke another era even if they are modern. If a weapon seems personalized and weathered, it doesn't really matter that it's a Kalashnikov. Matthews and cinematographer Shaun Lee happily quote Sergio Leone, sometimes using kids with slingshots, sometimes with their weary adult selves. The raids by the Ghost are horrific and violent.
It's a fairly ponderous western, though, with few thrilling moments between the two extremes. There's introspection and thoughts about the years Tau has missed in between the opening and his return to Marseilles, and I suspect a lot of the nuance there will be very appealing to a black South African audience, which is fine - Matthews and writer Sean Drummond don't need to make their main audience feel patronized by explaining things to me. Like many foreign genre films, it may resonate best at home. Even by that standard, though, it's seldom very active, spending a lot of time telling the audience who these guys are rather than showing their history, so the characters don't feel quite complete enough to justify the very solemn final shootout as something tragic.
It can skate on a decent cast, though - Vuyo Dabula may not get a lot of chances to show why Tau has been considered a lion since childhood, but he can project it just well enough that when others in the town seem frightened or curious, there's some justification to it. He shares the screen well with Zethu Dlomo, although she does a nice job of holding back, showing Lerato as not antagonistic to Tau but also too experienced to be swept up; she's not going to give up that she's considering something until she's already done. Lizwi Vilakazi is likably hotheded as Sizwe, while Hamilton Dhlamini chews all the scenery he can as Ghost, a half-supernatural monster of an outlaw without the burden of showing that the end of apartheid made situations more complex.I suspect that for the right audience and under the right circumstances, "Five Fingers" can be pretty enthralling; it's not bad if the movie isn't specifically made for you, either. It's a good enough western to be okay beyond its origin, and interesting enough as a look at that period of South African history, even if the two sides don't quite bolster each other as much as they could.
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