Cinema Signal:

Anatomy of a Miracle:
The End of Apartheid and the Birth of the New South Africa

. "Catch A Fire"

Tim Robbins' best work is in his political thrillers, or so I have believed since his home-grown terrorist organizer turn in "Arlington Road." Working now with director Philip Noyce, who has established himself master of the genre with such incisive and thought-provoking work as "Patriot Games," "The Bone Collector," and "Rabbit-Proof Fence," it's small wonder that the result is as powerful an indictment of South African apartheid as it is.

From its casting with Robbins as the clever but morally empty villain Nic Vos, chief of a police anti-terrorist team (under Botha), and the exceptional Derek Luke bringing the real-life experiences of South African citizen Patrick Chamusso to life, this is a powerful portrait of one quietly happy man's evolution, in the 80's, into a political radical taking up weapons against one of the most oppressive regimes that ever called itself a democracy.

When Chamusso (Luke) was first picked up by Vos and his team as a suspect in the bombing of the plant where he rose to the level of foreman, he was among the happiest in his community. His relatively good pay allowed him to raise his family in comfort and bring loving smiles to his wife Precious' (Bonnie Mbuli) face. Her chastisements of her man were either in play or from jealous fears.

It is clear from the start that this family breadwinner was anything but a terrorist, and also that Vos realized that simply accusing an innocent man was equivalent to letting the real terrorists get away with their crime, but that doesn't prevent him from applying a full gamut of torture technique and false friendship to determine Luke's credibility when he denies guilt. The extremity of Vos' methods, including violence against Precious, finally succeeds in turning Chamusso into the very thing he's being wrongly accused of. Once freed he joins the dreaded African National Counsel (ANC), headed by legendary leader Joe Slovo, and trains for the day he can avenge himself and his people against the likes of Vos and the forces of tyranny.

It is surprising that a story written by one of Slovo's children could be done with such dramatic urgency and, at the same time, balance. The expectation would be for too great a proportion of subjectivity for an arrival at an objective narrative. But it is all the more powerful for Shawn Slovo's ability to carry it off with an accomplished screenplay and for the inspiration it no doubt inspired in the team making it. Cinematography by Ron Fortunato and Garry Phillips is another outstanding factor.

Robbins shows us a smart and relentless torturer without conscience that is both a revelation of the psychology of sociopaths in charge, and of the superiority of human disregard that qualified this man for the position. It's an uncompromising portrait devoid of soul, let alone sentiment.

Luke's natural innocence and charm captures your involvement in his character's trials and injustices and Mbuli adds spicy sexiness and spirited personality to the tragedy befalling one sample case of political abuse.

Having found so much to praise about "Catch A Fire," however, I couldn't help wondering if someone thought we should apply its lessons to issues of religious extremism today. I'd have trouble with any such parallel, but looking under the specific politics to the suspenseful dramatization of a case study, the art behind it makes it meritable at any time.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Derek Luke as Patrick Chamusso
A man, radicalized.

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