Thursday, 11 May 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Die Rebellie van Lafras Verwey”

I’m currently convulsed in a long stretch of catching up on this blog; commitments arose to which I had to give priority over viewing and writing about movies for a short while, as much as I hated to, but, fortunately, I’m now freely available to post here again. Die Rebellie van Lafras Verwey was a new South African release which, I think, is by now already gone from theatres. I saw it when it was playing, and, hopefully, will get a chance to say something more about it here later, without seeming too self-indulgent; for now, I’m sharing what others had to say in reaction to it. Just because there are many South African films that I would like to read about but missed the chance to in local papers after they finished their theatrical run, and because most of them don’t get the Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic treatment of a long-standing compilation of reviews, I think it’d still be helpful to interested readers if I collected here what I could find on each South African work I see.

In his weekly Silwerskerm (“Silver screen”) column in the Rapport, Leon van Nierop reviewed the movie on its weekend of release (in the issue from the 9th of April). After giving a brief run-down of the history of the film’s source material and a plot description, he praises the lead performance by Tobie Cronjé, who, in his view,

delivers a monumental portrayal of the cast-off person with idle aspirations. He is sometimes funny, but also tragic and nonplussed.

After referring to the music that Lafras Verwey hears in his head and imagines conducting throughout the film, and comparing two instruments to aspects of Verwey’s character, van Nierop comments that the director

Simon Barnard succeeds in portraying this tuba-humdrum life. You may wish to see more of the flute when his imagination helps him rise momentarily above his limitations. The camera could have moved more freely in his lift-off-from-the-ground scenes, such as in the scene where it glides with him as he rides his bicycle. More scenes like this would have made the film even stronger. …

Strong images remain with you. The dehumanised city [of Pretoria] as a backdrop to Lafras’s patchwork-life is always present. He is also often travelling, but reaches no meaningful destination. … It’s further emphasised by the high quality art direction and scenery, where his crowded flat reflects his baffled thoughts in strong images – film’s most powerful tool.

On the entertainment website Channel24, Gabi Zietsman (whose own movie blog can be read here) begins by describing Die Rebellie van Lafras Verwey as “quite an odd Afrikaans film, that doesn’t quite fit in with the serious Afrikaans dramas, rom-coms and slapstick comedies.”

[Cronjé gives] a marvelous performance, and the film’s shortcomings mostly lie with how the main character is written and directed rather than the actor’s skills. [Chantell] Phillipus was a bit bland, compared to her compelling performance in Abraham, and it felt like she got steamrolled most of the time by Cronjé. … Die Rebellie van Lafras Verwey just couldn’t make itself watchable or entertaining, and tried too hard to mimic the unique style of veteran South African directors like Katinka Heyns [Blogger’s trivia note: Heyns is the mother of this film’s director, Simon Barnard] and Jans Rautenbach. However, I do appreciate its attempt at broadening our country’s Afrikaans cinema repertoire, but, sadly, we still have a long way to go before local art cinema finds its foothold in a commercially viable audience.

Writing for the Afrikaans literary site Litnet, Reney Warrington begins by describing Cronjé as “a tour de force,” but admits she “struggled to find a foothold in his portrayal of Lafras Verwey. He comes across as merely disturbed, without nuance, without moments of clarity or goodness that empathically draw you in.” She charges off a few other evaluations:

Visually, the film is successful. Character depth and a credible storyline, however, fell victim to the film. … [The characters] are nothing more than stereotypes. Their backgrounds remain obscure. They remain the same.

Warrington prescribes the reader’s reaction to the characters: “You don’t like him or her. You have zero empathy for either of them. That makes the film boring, because you’re not interested in their fate. Whether or not something happens to them, it doesn’t affect you.” She finishes off with a volley of frustrations and annoyances:

The repetition of certain actions/habits/dialogue was also disturbing and conspicuous. Lafras’s back-and-forth cycling became monotonous. The over-use of the names Petra and Lafras when the two address each other. Lafras deflecting questions by talking about something else. You know from the beginning where Lafras will end up – that is not in itself a problem. If the director could still keep your attention by making you care, surprising you, helping you learn something, or even simply entertaining you, then it wouldn’t have mattered that you know what awaits Lafras. Die Rebellie van Lafras Verwey, however, did not make me care, surprise me, teach me something, or entertain me at all.

In the Beeld, Herman Lategan also begins by praising Cronjé’s “long, varied, and virtuosic career.” He continues without qualifying that praise:

Cronjé is a deft actor who can work magic with comedy, but his work has become darker and richer over the last few years. The membrane between humour and pathos is sometimes thin. It’s a sign of how versatile and nuanced this artist is. His performing is no longer predominantly delicious fresh-milk cheese; it’s matured into a rich cheddar.

This picture is an artwork that, with each brushstroke on the palette, brings you deeper into the understanding that you’re in the company of great spirits. … [Barnard’s] compassionate direction and the adaptation are excellent. … The action between the two characters is tender, heartbreaking, fragile. They are two faded aquarelles in search of a water-colour. The picture’s atmosphere is that of a chilly winter sun reflecting off everything, the days and the people abandoned and paralysed by unfulfilled yearnings.

On the site Bioskoop (“Bioscope”), Gerhard Ehlers hails the technical achievements of the film as “a feast for the senses.”

Atmosphere was last caught on the big screen with such insight, craftsmanship, and precision long ago, and the soundtrack brings the viewer to swoon between fantasy and hard reality, that collide like two immense waves. Willie Nel’s camerawork and lighting can be compared to that of any international production and the direction is rhythmic and thoroughly thought through. [Barnard] proves that he understands the intuitive consciousness of the director and can bring actors like [Cronjé] to their full potential. …

Die Rebellie van Lafras Verwey is a film that doesn’t shy from asking uncomfortable questions about our society as well as the world in which we find ourselves. The film succeeds at this without becoming political. I sincerely hope that not just a selected audience will appreciate the almost prophetic word and deed of Lafras Verwey, because the message of the film really speaks to a universal audience.

Comment with your thoughts on the film, as well as on the reviews above. Let me know of any other word about it and contribute to the recording of South African cinematic history.


  1. "In the Beeld, Herman Lategan also begins by praising Cronjé’s “long, varied, and virtuosic career.” He continues without qualifying that praise. . . "

    Er, if you write for a newspaper or a magazine, you have a strict word count, unlike blogs or webzines. The arts'pages have shrunk. It is impossible to cover everything in a movie in 300 to 500 words.

    To have qualified my praise for Cronjé would have been superfluous, Afrikaans readers of arts' pages know his body of work. I needed to squeeze in quite a lot.

    Before the review I spoke to the director, the person in charge of costumes and the set, and more. I know the play well, I read it last year. I wonder how many reviewers went to so much trouble?

    I had enough information for a 2 000 word review. But in the real world it doesn't work like that, I'm afraid.

    Herman Lategan

    1. Hi Herman, thanks so much for your comment; I'm always keen to engage with people on my posts. I'm sorry, but I think you misunderstood what I was saying in that remark; I meant "qualify" in the sense of adding limitations or reservations to a statement, to contrast your review to the one posted by Reney Warrington. As in, she begins outright with praise for Cronjé in general, but qualifies it by saying she didn't enjoy his performance in this film; you also gave praise for Cronjé in general, and continued in that vein by praising his work in this film as well.

      I understand the problems you face regarding strict word counts (I had to deal with the same at the Perdeby newspaper and on the Huffington Post blog), and I sympathise. I also appreciate the work and preparation you put into your review; I've read others you've written for Netwerk24, and it doesn't surprise me at all that you put so much effort into this one.

      Look forward to speaking with you further, on many more films!


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