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Friday, February 13, 2009


Jerusalema (South Africa, dir. Ralph Ziman)

There is nothing in Jerusalema that we have not seen before in better films. If I had to pitch it, I'd call it "City of God coupled with American Gangster, but directed with gritty modern realism a la Michael Winterbottom." If you've seen either of those two films, then the story arc of Jerusalema will be familiar to you. Lucky Kunene (Jafta Mamabolo), a young boy living in the South African slums, turns to a life as a carjacker when poverty scuttles his plans to get an education. After some hairy violence, he moves to the Hillsboro slum of Johannesburg, and Lucky the man (Rapulana Seiphemo), tired of small-time hustling, develops a scheme whereby under the auspices of being a charitable organization, he will take over run-down tenements left to rot by their white slumlords. Eventually, he runs afoul of police and other gangsters, and the young punk who dreamed of being legitimate gets his comeuppance.

Stories like this, particularly when there is no flashy filmmaking style to distract us from the familiarity of the narrative, rise and fall on the charisma of their villains. In the case of Jerusalema, this is best in the early scenes with the teenaged crooks. Young Lucky and his partner Zakes (Motlatsi Mahloko as the boy, Ronnie Nyakale as the adult) are a funny and likable duo who are as naïve about the criminal world as they are ultimately dangerous. Once Jerusalema moves into the big city, it quickly grows long in the tooth. Ralph Ziman, who wrote the screenplay as well as directing the picture, seems to have no idea what parts of the story are the most important, and so he shows everything he can. The mis-en-scene is crammed full, with zero regard for logical timelines or natural progression. For instance, how does Lucky recover from bullet wounds faster than a man who died before he was shot can be buried?

Though Seiphemo is potent as the powerhouse Lucky, his arch nemesis, a cop played by Robert Hobbs, appears to be the South African equivalent of David Caruso. Equally unconvincing is the crusading reporter that shows up intermittently to help contextualize what is happening. These clichés could have easily been dropped and possibly have made way for some greater debate regarding the underlying political issues that inform Lucky's pseudo-Robin Hood philosophy. Ziman never really even confronts whether the criminal entrepreneur actually believes the claims he makes about race and class, nor does he do any more than imply that maybe Lucky is just as bad a landlord as the men he replaced, and so the character's ideological downfall is too long in coming and totally hollow when it finally arrives.

Jerusalema plays on 2/14 and 2/18. - PIFF's website at the NW Film Center

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All text (c) 2009 Jamie S. Rich

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