Moffie is a fascinating film, as it examines a brutal period in South African history, but from a wholly different angle. Where most stories show us the cruel effects of Apartheid and the brave souls who stood up to it, this one centers on a young man conscripted to be its instrument. At the same time, Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer) must face his own homosexuality, which could yield grave personal consequences if this secret gets discovered. As the film progresses, he must come of age in an environment of abject repressiveness. This creates an ugly choice: Nicholas can either segregate, marginalize, and destroy enemies of apartheid, or he can publicly embrace who he is and join them.
It’s 1981, and the South African government fights on two fronts: The first battle is an actual one, as Angolan communists march along the South African border. The other is the infamous, socio-political war on the Black population, who comprise a majority of the country. To field an army capable of winning both, the government conscripts able-bodied males between 17-60, for a period of two years. When we first meet Nicholas, his family celebrates his last night of freedom before reporting for duty.
His first taste of army service doesn’t go down well. Director Oliver Hermanus shows Nicholas boarding a train, which snakes through a barren moonscape of stripped trees and soot-colored ground. On board, boys drink, scream, and puke with hedonistic abandon. It’s a frightening journey into hell, and it sets the tone for much of what’s to come.
The scenes at boot camp will feel familiar to anyone who’s seen Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket: A menacing drill sergeant (Hilton Pelser) leads the boys in a series of soul-crushing exercises. The boys run until they puke, hunker in rain-soaked trenches, and stay awake for days at a time. As with Jacket, we see a lot of tearing down, but not much building up.
In the midst of all this well-organized madness, Nicholas develops feelings for Dylan (Ryan de Villiers), another boy in his unit. When that interest gets reciprocated, both find themselves in a precarious situation: The army–and South African culture, circa 1981–doesn’t tolerate homosexuality. (“Moffie” roughly translates to f****t in English.) Gay recruits who get caught face humiliation, beatings, or exile to a sanitarium for sexual “reconditioning.” For Nicholas and Dylan, their romantic exploration could have dire, lifelong consequences.
One more thing Moffie shares with Full Metal Jacket: Those boot camp sequences are gripping, but some of that momentum fritters away when the troops actually venture into combat. The first two acts of Moffie are so strong, but the film’s conclusion feels protracted and cerebral by comparison. Like so many war films, most of the characters are thinly drawn, and they don’t hold as much interest through when the story settles into quiet rumination.
With that said, this is a gorgeous film to watch. Seek it out on the biggest possible screen, as many moments take on a Spielbergian grandeur. (A shot of the young men silhouetted against a sunset feels right out of Saving Private Ryan.) Hermanus and cinematographer Jamie Ramsay fill every shot with light and color, and the result is a film that brims with life, even when its narrative grows heavy and difficult.
Moffie‘s performances are another strength. Brummer and Villiers reminded me of Charles MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman in 1917. The very nature of that film and this one makes well-rounded characters almost impossible–most of the young actors in Moffie spend most of the movie at attention, while someone screams in their face–but these performers find a way to add depth and humanity. They often communicate joy, despair, and deep frustration without saying anything at all.
This is a solid, sobering war movie, and its subject matter is still painfully relevant. Apartheid is long gone, but the mentality that created it still thrives. (Ignorance and intolerance continue to grow like thorny weeds within my own country.) The first two-thirds of Moffie feels like a bucket of cold ice water, and most of the world could use a good dousing. That greatness dissipates into mere goodness, but this is still a film of haunting poetic beauty, and I heartily recommend it.
104 min. NR. (Lots of graphic violence and profanity. Also nudity and heavy subject matter. Go ahead and slap an ‘R’ on this one.)