Drama, not rated, 106 minutes, in Afrikaans with subtitles, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3.5 chiles
The farmland of South Africa’s Free State region is a remote, stark, and (you might be tempted to say) a godforsaken place. But you would be at odds with the devout, churchgoing Afrikaners who inhabit and work these lands, and in particular with Marie (Juliana Venter), the obsessively religious mother of a family that includes husband Jan (Morné Visser), a senile father, three young daughters, and son Janno (Brent Vermeulen), a boy in his middle teens who is sturdy on the outside but emotionally fragile within. When we first see Janno herding cattle through the gloom of dawn, we hear his mother’s prayer in voiceover: “Make his blood strong, make his seed strong,” she chants.
Into this household comes a new face, a boy about Janno’s age: Pieter (Alex van Dyk), an Afrikaner street kid with a drug problem and a sordid past. Although his provenance is not clearly spelled out, he seems to have come from a drug rehab halfway house, and Marie has taken him in on a mandate from God to set him on the path of righteousness (“Holy Spirit, help us save this child,” she prays). She urges Janno to welcome him as a brother. At one point Janno exclaims “I don’t understand!” and his mother replies, “Understand? You think we’re supposed to understand? All we can do is believe!”
Janno is a dutiful kid, but this bonding is clearly not going to happen. The two boys are stark opposites both physically and emotionally, and Pieter’s background as a gay street hustler and drug addict puts him on a different planet of life experience from Janno’s rural innocence. The father, Jan, is not convinced about this adoption either. “We have daughters,” he pleads to Marie, but she’s not brooking any resistance to God’s will. So they send Pieter off to “man camp,” where he learns secrets about his adoptive family, and returns home more adept at playing the game, but not much changed underneath.
The Afrikaner population is dwindling; there’s a siege mentality and a lot of talk about white farmers being dragged from their homes and murdered. But the killing that writer-director Etienne Kallos focuses on here is one of the spirit. The movie has strong echoes of Kazan’s East of Eden, with Pieter in the James Dean role.
It’s a strong, self-assured debut feature from Kallos, and it’s set off beautifully by some magnificent camerawork from cinematographer Michal Englert.