I want to say from the start that while I will reference certain characters and details, this review will be spoiler-free for the most part. It’s really important to talk about the circumstances that the narrative evolves in, as well as some of the traits of the characters, in order to thoroughly review this film.
Five Fingers for Marseilles
I started seeing some buzz on my timelines for a Western set in South Africa. Wait, what? A Western in South Africa? This sounds interesting… I checked out the trailer a few days later, and I was determined to see this one on the big screen. Lucky for me, a Cape Town native, the film wasn’t only playing at the Toronto International Film Festival (where it premiered earlier this month) but was having an Oscar-qualifying run at local cinemas around the country.
I caught one of the last shows of its one week qualifying run, last week Thursday, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
According to the official synopsis, the film is set in Apartheid era South Africa, and focuses on a group of friends from a small town. The first part of the film focuses briefly on these friends as children, and the friendship they share, having grown up together in the town of Railway.
We get a clear understanding of who these characters are, and certain elements that foreshadow who (or what) they will grow up to be.
The kids get caught up in a devastating situation, and one of them, Tau leaves, but then returns years later to discover that his friends have grown into influential people; and that a new threat has entered the town, one that he must try to overcome, while dealing with the decades-old wounds his departure left on his home and the people there. I hope you enjoy my review of Five Fingers for Marseilles.
Tau is the lead character, played by Vuyo Dabula who leaves his home under dire circumstances, returning years later for reasons he appears to discover over time once he has returned.
There are strong coming-of age themes in Five Fingers for Marseilles, with a redemption arc for Tau that is captivating and extremely tragic.
There’s a defining moment just before Tau flees where we realize that he has lost his innocence, and that there is no happy ending for him.
The life he then goes on to live before returning is a reflection of this, summed up quite aptly in the tagline of the film: There are no good men.
Five Fingers for Marseilles is an absolutely gorgeous film and cinematographer Shaun Lee has a lot to be proud of.
From the sweeping landscapes, to the detailed portraits of our main characters, this film is visually remarkable, whether the situation is hopeful, wistful or melancholy.
Some of the shots from this film will stay with me for a very long time, and I hope that I will see many more South African films in future that look as stunning as this.
— Make Film not War (@thesnagel) September 21, 2017
Each main character has a very particular role to play, and we see them fulfill certain elements of their characters set up in the early parts of the film when they are children.
The characters are propelled by a cast delivering strong performances all round, while the writing in terms of the developing narrative, as well as the situations and dialogue manifesting in each scene creates dimension and pushes audiences to feel empathy in the moments of pain and joy throughout the film.
Some may find the poetic musings of Sepoko, played by Hamilton Dlamini to be a bit overbearing. But keep in mind, we are watching a Western here.
And when has a villain from a Western not been over-the-top? I was absolutely fascinated by the way he was embodying this character, and just oozing contempt all over the screen. Big ups to writer Sean Drummond for the dialogue work on this character.
What makes him so scary, is that many townships from that era, and even today have these kinds of figures dwelling around.
These violent, sociopaths that regular working-class South Africans have to live in proximity to every day. They come in the form of gangsters, and crime syndicate bosses. It’s a reality.
Almost Sticks the Landing
There’s a standoff towards the end where I found myself, along with a number of other cinema-goers verbally exclaiming “Why though?”.
The film ends in tragedy, but with the hope of a new beginning; however there was an opportunity to wrap this up in a more compelling and organic way within the actual climax, which happens just before this moment.
Yes, I know I just mentioned that there are great characters in this film; but at times it feels like there are too many characters.
Outside of the main characters, there are others who kind of float in and out of the main narrative, and while some of them are compelling, or serve a purpose in the bigger picture, others just feel a bit shoehorned into the story.
On another level, there are main characters who aren’t given enough to do. Lerato, played by Zethu Dlomo doesn’t have much to do.
I wish there was some more substance to the way the character was written; however Zethu Dlomo brings a stunning performance to what she was given in the script.
We get a lot of quiet time to simmer with some of the other characters as they process thoughts and ideas, and deliberate their next actions; and I really wanted to see way more of this for Lerato.
Five Fingers for Marseilles is uncanny, because it exists in this very real South African context where there are racial tensions and economic disparity.
But at the same time, it’s this hyperbolic experience full of broad landscapes, rural life, guns, community, violence, family, death, love, life and so much more.
This is a truly South African film, in the best possible way, and you should definitely see it. Not only is this one of the best South African films I’ve seen, it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year.
In future, I’d like to see more people of colour behind the cameras on these projects; driving the stories, shaking hands at the events and so on.
Here’s our spoiler-FREE review for the film. Subscribe to our YouTube channel for more spoiler-free reviews and lists!
You can watch the trailer for Five Fingers for Marseilles below:
The film stars Vuyo Dabula, Hamilton Dhlamini, Zethu Dlomo, Kenneth Nkosi, Mduduzi Mabaso, Aubrey Poolo, Lizwi Vilakazi, Warren Masemola, Dean Fourie, Anthony Oseyemi, Brendon Daniels, Jerry Mofokeng, Toka Mtabane, Vuyo Novokoza, Ntsika Tiyo, Sibusiso Bottoman, Abongile Sithole, and Qhawe Soroshi.
The official synopsis for the film can be found below, but fair warning, this synopsis is detailed, and may contain what some consider to be spoilers. So read this part at your own risk:
Apartheid South Africa: The community of Railway, attached to the remote town of Marseilles, are the victims of brutal police oppression and only the young “Five Fingers” are willing to stand up to them. Their battle is heartfelt but innocent, until hot-headed Tau kills two policemen in an act of passion. He flees, leaving his brothers and friends behind, but his action has triggered a conflict that will leave both Marseilles and the Five Fingers changed. Twenty years later, Tau is released from prison, now a feared and brutal outlaw, “The Lion of Marseilles.” But scarred and empty, he renounces violence and returns home desiring only to reconnect with those he left behind. At first, Tau finds Marseilles seemingly at peace – the battle for freedom was won, and now the remaining Five Fingers are prominent leaders of their town. However, after reuniting with childhood love, Lerato, and her fiery son, Sizwe, it becomes clear that Marseilles is caught in the grip of a vicious new threat and to Tau’s dismay, his childhood friends themselves may have allowed it in. When he and his loved ones become direct targets, he is reluctantly compelled to fight once and for all. Calling on partners-in-crime, both old friends and new, the Five Fingers rise again. Standing against once-allies and new enemies alike, they must put their lives at risk for the sake of Marseilles. It’s their duty to protect it. Even from each other.
Synopsis source: slashfilm.com
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