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Catch a Fire
Pulls One Too Many Punches
by Mel Valentin on Oct 26, 2006
Directed by Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American, Rabbit-Proof Fence) and based, as they say, on a true story, Catch a Fire dramatizes the radicalization of Patrick Chamusso, a refinery worker who, after being falsely arrested, imprisoned, and tortured, left his family to join the organized opposition to South Africa’s apartheid government, the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) that in later years became symbolized by Nelson Mandela, one of the ANC’s imprisoned leaders.
Catch a Fire just misses out, however, in being the thought-provoking political thriller it aspires to be, mostly because Noyce and his screenwriter, Shawn Slovo (Captain Corelli's Mandolin, A World Apart), de-dramatize key events and make the central antagonist far more sympathetic than he should be.
The film is set in 1980; apartheid is and has been a way of life in South Africa for decades. Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) has almost everything any man could want, a well-paying job as a foreman at the Secunda oil processing refinery, a loving wife, Precious (Bonnie Mbuli), children, close friends, and a fulfilling hobby as the coach for the local youth soccer team. Patrick consciously avoids political statements or entanglements. On a day trip with his soccer team to participate in a regional competition, Chamusso takes a side trip that will later prove problematic. At the same time, the ANC slips into and sabotages the Secunda refinery, causing extensive damage.
Colonel Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), an officer in the South African government’s anti-terrorism branch, arrives at the Secunda plant to ferret out collaborators. Despite a solid work record and agnosticism toward politics, Vos pulls in Chamusso for questioning. He’s tortured repeatedly. Vos pushes Chamusso further by having his wife arrested and tortured. Ultimately, Chamusso breaks under pressure, confessing, but Vos refuses to accept the confession, freeing Chamusso in the process. Newly politicized and radicalized, Chamusso decides to join the anti-apartheid resistance, specifically the ANC.
Noyce and Slovo work hard to create audience sympathies for Colonel Vos. Vos may be woefully misguided and more than willing to sacrifice moral principles for political expediency, but he also acknowledges that apartheid’s days are numbered. With 25 million blacks and only 3 million whites, the odds are definitely against apartheid as a viable political and social system. Despite his reservations, and the fact that he authorizes the torture of South African prisoners, Vos prefers to play the caring, compassionate caretaker. Slovo’s portrayal of Chamusso, while positive, also evinces some ambivalence, as Chamusso leaves his wife and children alone and without resources while he joins the ANC (while also placing his family in greater danger).
On another level, Noyce and Slovo decided to stick as closely as possible to actual events, which, in turn, leaves several scenes short on dramatic conflict or resolution. In a sense, Slovo and Noyce have de-dramatized key story events, in effect subverting expectations. It’s a risky strategy likely to leave moviegoers perplexed or dissatisfied. More problematic is the use of voice-over narration that opens and closes Catch a Fire. Reappearing intermittently to remind us that we’re seeing events through Chamusso’s eyes, the voice-over narration adds nothing we haven’t seen already. It also doesn’t make sense when Slovo and Noyce break away from Chamusso’s limited point-of-view to follow events and characters Chamusso couldn’t have possibly experienced first hand.
Either way, Catch a Fire makes important, if ultimately obvious, points about the near-universal, cross-cultural desire for political and social freedoms and the perils oppressive, repressive governments face when they deny their citizens basic civil liberties. As drama, however, Catch a Fire offers moral complexity to either-or simplicity that proves to be less emotionally satisfying than it should be. And even if it doesn’t quite earn the plea for forgiveness or reconciliation that ends the film, it comes close, close enough to make Catch a Fire almost as relevant as A World Apart was almost twenty years ago.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
by Mel Valentin on Oct 26, 2006