Film Reviews

Apartheid and Seek

The novel Cry, the Beloved Country, written by a white South African schoolteacher named Alan Paton, was published in 1948, the year apartheid became official in South Africa. The story concerns two elderly fathers, one Zulu and one white, who become linked by tragedy--the former's son is charged with the murder of the latter's son.

Stephen Kumalo is an Anglican pastor who travels from his tiny rural home to Johannesburg, where he learns that his son, Absalom, has been imprisoned for killing the son of James Jarvis, a wealthy farmer who lives a few miles from Kumalo.

Paton's purpose was to illustrate, first, how a racist society tears apart the lives of everyone in it, whether they're racist or not; and, second, how love and forgiveness and reconciliation are possible in even the most extreme cases. It's a cherished work in South Africa, and it has been filmed before--a 1951 Zoltan Korda production, scripted by Paton himself, starred Canada Lee and featured a young Sidney Poitier as Absalom. (There was also a musical version, called Lost in the Stars, filmed in 1974.)

The current version of Cry stars James Earl Jones and Richard Harris, and was directed by a 33-year-old South African named Darrell James Roodt, who previously directed Place of Weeping, the first antiapartheid film produced in South Africa. (Less nobly, Roodt also made the Patrick Swayze comedy Father Hood.)

Sad though the story is, the tone of the new Cry is partly celebratory--Paton's conciliatory vision for his beloved country has, at least for now, been fulfilled, probably decades earlier than Paton would have thought possible. Nelson Mandela has enthusiastically endorsed the movie, calling it "a monument to our future."

Unfortunately, a monument is just what the film is like--handsomely crafted and touching in its intentions, but also ponderous and static. The actors have no choice but to speak Paton's formal, stylized dialogue earnestly, and the tone of solemnity can wear you down. Kumalo is referred to as umfundisi ("pastor" in Zulu) so often and so ceremoniously that the word begins to sound sort of funny after a while.

The simple plot isn't much more than a setup for the bonding of the two fathers, and Roodt's handling of it sometimes mutes or muddles the film's few complexities, such as the connection ofKumalo's brother (well-played by Charles S. Dutton), an influential local politician, to the outcome of Absalom's trial. There are no big revelations or unexpected twists, just the somber exploration of the grief of these men. There's dramatic honesty in this, but little suspense.

Still, Jones and Harris are both great actors, andthere's no denying the beauty of much of theirwork here, especially in their scenes together. They underplay the mix of emotions with herculean restraint. Though unsatisfying inthe long run, this Cry, the Beloved Country isahard film to dislike, even though it, unlike Paton's courageous novel, is preaching to the converted.--M.V.Moorhead

Cry, the Beloved Country:
Directed by Darrell James Roodt; with James Earl Jones, Richard Harris, Eric Miyeni, Vusi Kunene, Leleti Khumalo, Charles S. Dutton, Dambisa Kente and Anne Curteis.