The road to bad art is paved with good intentions.
At 73, director John Boorman could be considered one of the wise elders of modern cinema. Combining decades of craft with a keen intellectual curiosity, his filmography is studded with a few masterpieces (Deliverance, Point Blank and The General), a few cult faves (Excalibur, The Emerald Forest) and the occasionally overly ambitious disaster (Exorcist II). He’s one of the few directors who can balance social conscience with superlative storytelling skills. So, how to explain a boneheaded and ham-fisted film like In My Country?
Based on a memoir by Antjie Krog, a South African poet and journalist who covered her country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the film charts the budding romance of white Afrikaner Anna Malan (the miscast Juliette Binoche) and an African-American reporter, Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson), as they travel town to town, listening to horrifying accounts of rape, torture and murder.
The commission’s guiding principle of ubuntu — to seek truth instead of punishment and promote healing through forgiveness — is as inspiring as it is remarkable. The perpetrators, in order to be granted amnesty, had to honestly confess their crimes to survivors and the families of their victims. More than 21,000 South Africans testified in a series
of heartbreaking hearings between 1995 and 1997.
There is plenty of dramatic grist for the mill here. The emotional, spiritual and metaphorical implications of granting forgiveness in the face of so many atrocities should make for a compelling drama. Ann Peacock’s script, however, is a textbook example of how poorly written fictional characters and clumsy storytelling can undermine the power of real-life tragedy and history.
The relationship between Binoche and Jackson is awkward, forced and predictable. So too is the acting. Perhaps this is because neither Anna nor Langston is really a character at all, but rather hastily sketched symbols forced to deliver sanctimonious declarations and wooden dialogue. Their metaphorically labored love affair lacks chemistry, subtlety or believability.
In My Country, like Boorman’s far superior (and criminally underrated) Beyond Rangoon, is a movie about Third World suffering served up for First World audiences. Unlike Rangoon, however, which confronted the blissful ignorance of white Westerners toward Third World suffering, In My Country’s view of South Africa’s sorrowful tangle of politics and race is smug, shallow and condescending. For all its talk about “shades of gray,” the white perpetrators are depicted as shifty-eyed thugs and sneering racists, and the South African blacks are an anonymous crowd of noble sufferers.
Nothing demonstrates the film’s intellectual shortcomings better than Jackson’s scenes with Brendan Gleeson. Playing a sadistic police commander in hiding, Gleeson chews the scenery as he reveals his government’s brutal complicity. Despite his confessions, the courts deny him amnesty and instead promise punishment — all to the jubilant cheers and chants of the crowd. The film falls to contradiction by trying to have it both ways: espousing the nobility of forgiveness while also succumbing to the cathartic fires of vengeance.
Despite the long list of missteps, Boorman is a skillful enough director to keep the film moving along. The scenes during the commission’s hearings — taken directly from real testimony — carry with them the weight of true heartache. Cinematographer Seamus Deasy beautifully captures the African landscape, using its majestic other-worldliness as an effective counterpoint to the nation’s pain and sorrow.
Considering the rise of moralism in this country, perhaps we should look to South Africa for comparison. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s magnificent experiment in confession and absolution, while not without flaws, is a revolutionary step toward creating a society that makes practice of its noblest values. Truth and reconciliation is a notion that deserves wider regard, and makes one pine for the documentary that will give this real-life subject the justice it deserves.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].