12 November 1999 | larrys
A review of a great South African film
A Reasonable Man
Reviewed by Larry Schlesinger (for I-Net Bridge)
There has been a tendency in the past to judge locally made films on a different to scale to those that are made in Hollywood, or abroad. I must admit that I almost fell into the same trap when I began thinking about this exceptional film.
Gavin Hood who produced, directed, and wrote the screenplay for " A Reasonable Man", plays the lead character, Sean Raine. Raine is a corporate lawyer who through a series of events, while river rafting with his wife on a friend's farm, comes to the aid of a herdboy, Sipho Mtombelo. Sipho is accused of murdering a 1-year-old baby for the purpose of making African Muti, a powerful medicine for warding of evil spirits. Sipho, deeply disturbed by the ordeal, and locked up in a dank Johannesburg jail, claims that he believes he was killing the Tokoloshe, an evil African spirit, much feared by the local tribesman.
Sean has met the herdboy earlier in the day. He and his wife are nearly trampled by Sipho's herd of cattle, while sleeping on the riverbank. Sean takes on his case, not believing that this gentle boy could be guilty of such a heinous and viscous crime, even though he is caught with a bloodstained hatchet in his hand.
Raine and the viewer descend into the world of witchcraft and African mysticism, as he undergoes an exorcism of his own soul, while trying to save Sipho. It soon becomes clear that Raine has personal reasons for taking on the case, his own demons still plague him from his days as a bush shoulder in the Angolan War. This inter-weaving of plots and character give the film it's rich texture and depth, and also serves to raise it up above the purely "courtroom drama", which it never becomes.
Raine visits a witchdoctor, at dawn, driving his polished green landrover through the dusty township. He plays the part of the civilized and educated white man, believing that he can understand African beliefs, merely by asking questions. He soon finds out that he cannot understand Sipho's beliefs, unless he incorporates them into his psyche. The witchdoctor says to Sean: " You are a white man in African and you are cursed. There is a snake inside of you". What follows is a gruesome and disturbing exorcism as Raine's must first cleanse himself of his own evil spirits and demons The point being made here is obvious. African beliefs cannot be tossed aside because they are old. The relentless modernization of society cannot bury the deep African roots that have guided the tribes of African since the dawn of time. A white man must choose between being an African or remaining an outsider forever
Nigel Hawthorne represents this colonial past as he gives a superb performance as the crusty judge. He has an understanding of African witchcraft, but it is a narrow and limited view and he struggles to find a place for it in his civil and educated set of values. However he does raise some serious and telling points of debate. The judges argument is that a man cannot be merely excused of his actions because he holds certain beliefs which result in the death of an innocent child, whether the child is believed to be a Tokoloshe or not. A man may believe as he wishes, and act according to his beliefs, but he shall be held accountable for these actions by the legal requirements of a modern Judeo-Christian society. Otherwise, the judge says, the leaders of the apartheid government could be excused of their actions because they were based on a set of firmly held beliefs, no matter how sick they may seem to society. This is an excellently argument, and one which Sean Raine has failed to consider in his defense plea.
On the other hand, it is unfair to judge traditional beliefs by western standards. In one of the few humorous episodes, the witchdoctor is put on the stand, as is asked about her experience in her profession. Eventually she gets annoyed by the prosecuting attorney (superbly played by Vusi Kunene) who wants to know what her education is, and says: " I am not a professor of witchcraft". She has been educated, but not in a school. An elder sangoma has trained her in the practice of healing by using the spirits of the ancestors, and the point is made that not all knowledge is to be found in school and libraries. This testimony of the witchdoctor contrasts with that of the university professor who has studied African witchcraft, not to understand it, but to document its savagery. This contrast is just one of the many ways that Hood as director sets up the multi-cultural battleground upon which the story unfolds.
A Reasonable man is well made, with superb performances by a largely local cast of actors, including some of South Africa's finest - Michael Richards, Graham Hopkins, and Ken Gambu, to mention a few.
By any set of standards, it is a deeply moving and disturbing film that taps into the marrow of South Africa's rainbow nation, and is a sure of sign of the great stories that our local filmmakers have to tell.