Boesman & Lena

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There’s always something odd about a filmed play, especially one which has been removed from the artifice of a theatrical setting and recast in the natural world. Why, one can’t help but wonder, are these people talking so much? In Boesman & Lena, director John Berry has opened up Athol Fugard’s play, set in apartheid-era South Africa, with a canny eye for the desolate beauty of open roads and abandoned backwaters, but there’s never a moment’s doubt that the full weight and nuance of meaning are being conveyed verbally.

The movie-play opens in medias res and at full throttle with Boesman (Danny Glover) and Lena (Angela Bassett) engaging in what is apparently an ongoing squabble. They’re a ragged husband-and-wife duo, homeless scavengers and wanderers who have come to a temporary halt on an isolated mud flat. Boesman is the “boss man” of the two, lording over his wife and hiding his despair behind a bullying bravado, while Lena, no shrinking violet, alternates between lashing back and appealing to what remains of Boesman’s sense of fairness.

For a while, this plays out like an absurdist two-hander reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, especially in light of Lena’s recurring “How did I get here?” — a question whose mystery is enhanced by Berry’s insertion of several sunny flashbacks to (mostly) happier days. It’s a question that has no simple answer and which lifts the play from its topical concerns to a more universal level.

What little plot there is, is stimulated by the arrival of a third character, an old Xhosa tribesman, a ghostly apparition in a tattered gray overcoat. Being seedier, bereft of English and, more importantly, blacker than the bickering couple, the tribesman becomes an instant object of Boesman’s abuse. Lena, meanwhile, turns to him for fresh company, a respite from Boesman’s wounded hatred.

Boesman & Lena has a kind of compacted intensity which keeps it from being wholly satisfying, but it also has a wonderful performance by Bassett, who slides through the melodramatic range of her character’s emotions with a commanding ease — you realize how underused she’s been since her Tina Turner tour de force.

The film is also significant as the swan song of director Berry, who died during the film’s post-production, at the age of 82. Blacklisted by Hollywood in the ’50s, Berry had an eclectic, nomadic career and Boesman & Lena is typical of his best work — visually acute and, despite its failings, on the side of the angels.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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