Catch A Fire
Why do the most interesting films die at the box office, or not even make it that far? Two years ago the powerful South African film "Red Dust" had an international festival run but never got picked up for American distribution even though it starred 2-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank as an attorney representing an apartheid victim at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Now another very worthwhile South African film is falling by the box-office wayside; it's "Catch A Fire," starring Tim Robbins and Derek Luke. The film is set in the 1970s, and is based on the true story of Patrick Chamusso, a foreman at an oil refinery near Johannesburg. As played by Luke, he's a good worker, 'knows his place' in relation to his white bosses and the apartheid government, is married to the pixie-like Precious (Bonnie Henna), has two little girls, and even coaches a boys' soccer team. But one day, after the African National Congress guerrillas have planted and exploded a bomb at the refinery, Patrick is picked up by the police as a suspect, questioned and tortured by Superintendent Nic Vos (Robbins). In an interesting twist, he must lie to the police about his whereabouts in order to hide an adulterous relationship; naturally, Vos thinks he lied because he was involved in the bombing. At any rate, his experience impels him to join the ANC, training in Mozambique and Angola, and then being sent back to South Africa to sabotage the refinery. Meanwhile Vos, trying to locate Chamusso, arrests and tortures Precious as well.
In a way that's reminiscent of "The Battle of Algiers," the film follows both Chamusso and Vos as they move inexorably toward a new collision. At one point Vos, who has two daughters of his own, even brings the arrested Chamusso to his home for Sunday dinner. Robbins, in a light Boer accent, beautifully underplays a role that he might well have torn the scenery with, and is doubly effective because of it. Luke, as Chamusso, is also utterly believable, handling the contradictions and conflicts within Chamusso's life with a sureness that shows how far he's come as an actor.
The film was written by Shawn Slovo, daughter of the late South African Communist Party leader and member of the outlawed ANC during the worst of the apartheid years. As directed by Phillip Noyce ("Rabbit Proof Fence") it does not try to make Chamusso a superhero, nor Vos a supervillain; while Chamusso learns to be a fighter Vos applies his skill and experience to his own job; the clash becomes more powerful because of it.