21 September 2006

Movie Review: "Catch a Fire"

Movie Review: "Catch a Fire"
September 20, 2006 06:42 PM EDT
© 2006 by Digital Dogs

Australian Philip Noyce directs Catch a Fire, one of the best films of the year that few people in the US might actually see. Catch a Fire is a classic hero's journey that dramatizes the story of Patrick Chamusso, an ordinary man whose life is turned upside down by extraordinary circumstances. Set in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, Catch a Fire is a beautiful and haunting film that bears great relevance to circumstances in the world today. Noyce deftly tells Patrick's story of how easily a terrorist can be created from a gentle ordinary man.

The film is set in the 1980's, a time when life is hard for the black people of South Africa, but family man Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a foreman at the Secunda Oil Refinery (which turns coal into oil and is a symbol of South Africa's self-sufficiency during apartheid), is doing better than most. He is a loving, attentive husband with a beautiful wife, Precious (South African Bonnie Mbuli, aka Bonnie Henna), 2 young daughters he dearly loves, a home, a car, a son (he also dearly loves) from another woman, and he is the coach for the local township football team. Patrick is completely apolitical and has made his life as good as it could be while still being black in apartheid South Africa.

Patrick is only interested in living the best life he possibly can. He is successful even though the ANC (African National Congress) is organizing against apartheid resulting in tensions between whites and blacks being at an all-time high. Considered a terrorist organization by the minority white South African government, the ANC is outlawed while the SA government desperately tries to hold on to its power. Academy Award winner (for 2003's Mystic River) Tim Robbins plays Nic Vos, a composite character who, in this film, is a Colonel in the country's Police Security Branch. Thoughtful yet shrewd, Vos is concerned about his family's security and teaches his two daughters to shoot guns for their protection. Vos leads a team that focuses on the outlawed ANC. One night while Patrick is secretly visiting with his son by another woman (so his wife doesn't find out), Secunda is sabotaged and a big explosion occurs. An innocent Patrick comes under suspicion because his whereabouts cannot be explained. Patrick does not want to hurt his wife by admitting his past indiscretion with a woman other than his wife, so he keeps mum about his alibi. Patrick is arrested in June 1980 and he is ill-prepared to withstand the brutal interrogations by Vos and his men that follow. After an unsuccessful series of torture, Vos arrests Patrick's wife Precious and that, and the beating she receives, are the beginnings of Patrick's radicalization. Vos finally realizes Patrick was not involved and he is released from prison and ultimately leaves his family to travel to Mozambique to train with the ANC. Once there he becomes involved with the ANC's military wing, Mkhonto we Sizwe (MK), and with their support he eventually prepares a successful solo follow-up attack on Secunda.

In Mozambique Patrick meets MK Commander Joe Slovo, one of very few senior white members of the ANC. Slovo, born in Lithuania to a Jewish family who emigrated to South Africa when he was eight, ran Special Ops for the MK, a military unit set up to run spectacular acts of armed propaganda inside South Africa, the Secunda attacks being part of its agenda. Patrick's attack on Secunda was successful and, after evading the police for three days, he was arrested, convicted of terrorism, and sentenced to jail for 24 years. Patrick served 10 years in the prison on Robben Island, the same location Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.

Derek Luke plays Patrick with gentleness and sensitivity, and his Oscar-worthy performance is the true highlight of this film along with its story. Luke, remembered best for his brilliant performance as Antowne Fisher, outdoes himself in this film, and it is almost impossible to believe he hails from New Jersey, his South African demeanor and accent are spot-on. Luke deserves more lead roles and more recognition. Hopefully this role will boost him up the Hollywood ladder of success. Tim Robbins displays a cruel and conflicted Nic Vos with restraint and gravity.

Catch a Fire is a neat 98 minutes, proving that a big story can be told without wasting time and money catering to a director's or producer's whims. The audience was enthralled with this huge emotional well-acted story and gave it a standing ovation when Noyce, the Slovos, Luke, Henna, and the real-life Patrick came out for a Q&A afterwards. The Slovo sisters talked about how their father had considered this story so important that he asked them to make sure the world would one day hear Patrick's story. The connections you will draw from this film to present day terrorism will surprise you.

Today the quiet gentle Patrick lives in North East South Africa with his wife Conney, a woman he married after his release from prison. Together they have three children of their own and run a home for children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic that is devastating much of the African continent. You can help support their work by making a donation to their organization, also the name of their orphanage, Two Sisters.

This is a film you will not only enjoy, but will learn from on many levels. Highly recommended!


Digital Dogs rating: A+, dead and tortured bodies litter the film, so be prepared. Bring tissues.

MPAA rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving torture and abuse, violence and brief language.

Producers Sydney Pollack, Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin, Anthony Minghella, Eric Fellner, Robyn Slovo, Director Philip Noyce, Writer Shawn Slovo, Actors Derek Luke, Bonnie Mbuli, Tim Robbins

Running Time: 98 minutes

© Digital Dogs



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