October 30, 2006

Catch a Fire

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In Ithaca, there is a world of cinema beyond the Pyramid Mall. If you want to see a first-run movie, you actually have two other options with sibling art-houses Fall Creek Theatres and Cinemapolis. When the new releases at Pyramid failed to pique my interest as much as the idea of doing my personal Everest of laundry, I ventured to the Commons to Cinemapolollapaloozalis to
try to find something more intriguing. There in the depths of the Center Ithaca cellar, the more underground (ha) movies in Ithaca are playing. Cinesnuffalupagus right now is showing Catch a Fire, a film about one man’s stand against apartheid — a topic which American cinema has not discussed prominently since 1987’s Cry Freedom.

Derek Luke of Antwone Fisher and Friday Night Lights stars as Patrick Chamusso, a model black citizen of South Africa under the oppressive apartheid rule in 1981. He is relatively successful as a foreman at the Secunda Oil Refinery, and he and his family lead a comfortable life in the town. He even tells his mother-in-law to turn off the radio when she listens to a Freedom Fighter channel lest anyone hear that type of programming emanating from his house. He was as careful as he could be, but when the refinery was bombed one night, although he had called in sick to work, he was arrested and tortured. Anti-terrorist agent Nic Vos (Tim Robbins) sets Patrick free after he realizes that he did not commit the crime. But when Patrick realizes that he can do nothing to protect himself and his family from the tyranny, he decides it is time to stand up and join the Freedom Fighters. He decides to help them destroy the Secunda Refinery for good.

Throughout the film, it’s hard to tell if Vos is a good guy or not. Clearly he’s not the “good guy” in the story, especially since he’s an officer in the apartheid regime, but he releases Patrick when his colleagues would have let him rot in jail for a crime they knew he didn’t commit. Director Philip Noyce also spends a lot of time with the Vos family, showing that Vos truly believed he was protecting them from terrorism. However, when we see him commissioning the murders and torture of Patrick’s innocent friends and even an elementary school-age boy on the soccer team Patrick coached, Vos seems to lack a soul. Still, the story is a lot more evenhanded than would be expected from, in today’s perspective, such an ostensibly one-sided matter.

The film features English, Afrikaans, and Zulu, with the characters all seamlessly moving from one to another. Robbins and Luke are excellent with their respective dialects, and it’s hard to believe that they are anything but South African natives. With the language element and the 80s-inspired gritty cinematography, Catch a Fire seems like a contemporary foreign film, but at the same time, the subject matter surmounts the foreignness of the content and appearance of the film to bring the audience right into Patrick’s struggle.

Music plays a huge role in this movie. The title is taken from the legendary Bob Marley album of the same name. Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” plays at a wedding towards the beginning of the film and then reappears as Patrick’s code name for the resistance. Noyce also includes myriad scenes of traditional Zulu songs. Music is so central to the lives of these characters that the film does not go ten minutes without some sort of musical appearance.

Unlike too many others nowadays, this film actually says something. Patrick tells Vos that his children may not know him if he is killed, but they will be able to say their father stood for something. Upon the film’s conclusion, we find out that Chamusso is a real man and this is what actually happened to him. Although these types of stories are all-too-infrequently told, they are inherently inspirational, so I suggest you head over to the subterranean CinemaGeorgeStephanopolis this week and catch the Fire before it’s extinguished.