William Shakespeare once said, “Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” It looks like we’re dealing with the last type, a rather reluctant hero, here, in Catch a Fire.
Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) was born poor in 1949 in a rural village in Mozambique. Not formally educated as a teenager, he followed his father to South Africa to find work. After a series of odd jobs as a miner, house painter, street vendor and migrant laborer, he eventually found gainful employment at a coal-to-oil refinery in Secunda, a town located several hours east of Johannesburg.
By the age of 28, he was married with children and also a popular figure in his community where he coached the local kids’ traveling soccer team. Meanwhile, the country was being brought to the brink of civil war by the gradually escalating efforts of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) that was spearheading the people’s movement to topple the apartheid regime.
However, he—by now promoted to foreman with a promising career to protect and a family to support—was not inclined to join the revolution. But that all changed in 1980, when he was arrested and then beaten by the secret police, while being interrogated about an act of sabotage in which he had not participated.
Upon his release from jail, however, the formerly mild-mannered middle-manager did belatedly catch the spirit for independence that had already been sweeping across much of the populace. Now willing to join the revolt, he temporarily left the country for his native Mozambique to be trained there as a rebel by the ANC, in order to return to blow up the power plant he knew inside and out.
This is the trajectory of Catch a Fire, a surprisingly listless, historical epic that examines the South African struggle for independence from the perspective of an unlikely protagonist who never manages to muster much in the way of charisma. Unlike the arc of the relatively uplifting documentary Amandla (2003), which effectively captured the Black masses’ passion in the pursuit of freedom, this picture never quite conveys the same urgent sense of a destiny that would not be denied. Instead, we have an almost apolitical tale overshadowing the backdrop of South Africa’s burgeoning, bloody coup d’etat.
The film’s fatal failing rests with its ill conceived, emotionally detached juxtaposition of Chamusso and his antagonist, Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), as moral equivalents. Presumably in the interest of even-handedness, Vos, the colonel presiding over one of the government’s sadistic goon squads, is painted as a benign, almost unwilling oppressor, rather than as the monster a man in his position must have been.
For example, at one juncture he confides in his prisoner, “Between you and me, Patrick, apartheid can’t last.” Even more ludicrous is the scene where Vos is humanized as a devoted family man. In this case, he brings his suspect home to the strictly segregated suburbs to share a sumptuous meal with his wife (Michele Burgers) and two young daughters (Jessica Anstey and Charlotte Savage).
By contrast, Patrick, who also just happens to have a spouse (Bonnie Mbuli) and two little girls (Onthatile Ramasodi and Ziizi Mahlati), is portrayed as a womanizer who had better blame himself for his detention, because he was only tortured after he did not ‘fess up that he had been with a mistress at the time of the terrorist attack in question. This scenario serves to vindicate Vos who, by implication, would never have resorted to such tactics had his morally compromised prisoner simply shared his ironclad alibi.
Apartheid revisited, less as a repugnant racist ideology, than as an ethically ambivalent philosophy.
Fair (1 star) PG-13 for violence, torture, profanity, ethnic slurs, and mature themes In English, Afrikaans, and Zulu with subtitles. Running time: 101 minutes
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