Thursday, 22 February 2018

Critic’s-Eye View: “Inxeba”

Though South African moviegoers are now regrettably unable to see John Trengrove’s isiXhosa-language film Inxeba (perhaps even more so because of it), I’ve thought it worthwhile to collect local reviews of the film so that readers can get a broader view of the responses to it (I haven’t done the same with international reviews, since there’re already very good sites that do that).

Read The Back Row’s review of Inxeba here.

In her review on the Afrikaans culture site LitNet, Reney Warrington calls Inxeba “transformative,” and affirms her seriousness in that description:

With great care and respect, John Trengrove and his team disconnect you from your world, and walk alongside you into a world foreign to most. You are made to wince, to care deeply, even for loathsome characters, and, ultimately, you are left winded by the weight of the patriarchy and the tragic, yet perfect, end. The wide angles and close-ups, the lush landscape and cicadas buzzing, Xolani’s gentle soul versus Vija’s rage, the men singing and telling tales, the silences and cacophony all blend together in a perfectly balanced piece of art. The one element does not overshadow the other – the sign of a great film.
What adds gravitas to the film is Trengrove’s mode of storytelling, what he chose to show or not show. He could thrust patriarchy in your face. He could shock you with blood and guts and shattered bodies. That would be the easy way. Instead, he draws you in, shows you something beautiful and fragile and worth caring for, and then crushes it. It is a sucker punch of note.

In his review for the Sowetan, in which he awarded Inxeba eight points out of ten, Emmanuel Tjiya describes it as “the most audacious and visually stunning … to come to African cinema in recent memory”:

Not only does the narrative challenge and push boundaries on African muscularity, identity, and sexuality, but it is carefully deliberated and researched in doing so. The film is slightly compromised in some parts that could have been understated instead of scaling up on the drama. But looking at it from Trengrove’s point of view, if you are going to upset people, you’d better commit and go all the way. … Undoubtedly the film’s most winning recipe is that it advances the way gay men are being portrayed on screen. The gay men here are complex and not given the caricature treatment where gay characters merely add colour to a story. …
On the technical aspect (cinematography, score, editing, sound) the film, exquisitely framed against the Eastern Cape rural landscape, is rich and flawless. What makes it even more special is that it lets the character-driven and intimate screenplay shine above the rest.

In a rather mixed review for Channel24, Anele Mfazwe awarded Inxeba two stars out of five and, though finding the film “brilliant,” avers that

The level of contempt and invasive disregard for the sacred Xhosa tradition of ulwaluko (the rite of passage to manhood) displayed in The Wound leaves much to be desired … it’s astonishing to see fellow Xhosa men and especially elderly men participate in this exercise which is essentially a spit in the face of those that hold the culture sacrosanct. …
Bongile Mantsai’s portrayal of a traditional nurse (which, for some reason, in the movie is translated to “caregiver”) called Vija is something to behold.  … The envelope was drastically pushed in the making of this film. …
I further found it perplexing that having taken this huge risk, why the writers didn’t address the white elephant when it comes to initiation schools in some parts of South Africa — especially the Eastern Cape. [sic] Which is the alarming number of initiates dying in mostly illegal circumcision schools. Not even a footnote of reference is made on this epidemic in the movie. Why take the risk of going so deep into uncharted waters and not address the main issue surrounding it?

In a four-star (out of five) review for Die Burger, Laetitia Pople praises the performances:

The actor Bongile Mantsai’s Vija is a forceful bull who hides his true nature from others. [Nakhane] Touré is a challenging presence on the silver screen — he is sensitive and full of feeling. The viewer can read his mind without him saying much. The movie is not easy viewing — it is at times violent and shocking. The bull is grabbed by the horns. The script is written with depth by Trengrove, Thando Mgqolozana, and Malusi Bengu.

In his three-star (out of five) review for the Rapport, Leon van Nierop calls Inxeba “brave and disruptive”:

With fine sensitivity, a sense of the grandeur of nature and traditions that are ignored, Trengrove delivers a fearless masterpiece. … Nakhane Touré’s performance as a factory worker who initiates boys is excellent.

In another four-star (out of five) review, this one for the Sunday Times, Tymon Smith briefly describes the reactions of those who protested the film before it was released, and those who eventually saw it, writing that

The reasons for this change in attitude have everything to do with Trengrove’s sensitive direction and the superbly understated, complex performance of Nakhane (née Touré). [sic] The screenplay, by Trengrove, Thando Mgqolozana, and Malusi Bengu, steers clear of anthropological exoticisation and judgement in favour of taking on the bigger challenge of exploring universal issues of the shaping of masculinities and the conflicts between tradition and modernity. …
Trengrove sidesteps the potential melodrama of a story with three different types of gay characters by keeping things understated and mostly implied rather than offering on-the-nose pointers. The intimacy of the relationships is presented in quiet by claustrophobic focus, which keeps us wholly engaged and is helped by strong performances.

In a review for the Independent Media Group’s Tonight entertainment supplement, Masego Panyane writes

One of the aspects that stood out for me was Inxeba’s authenticity. … The performances of Nakhane and [Niza Jay] Ncoyini had an authenticity about them that left me wanting to know more about their lives … I was particularly impressed with Bongile Mantsai’s portrayal of Vija. … He was a dream to watch, with the right amount of energy and intensity to bring this conflicted character to life.

The arts editors of the Mail & Guardian also recommend Inxeba to moviegoers in a brief note in the paper’s Friday arts supplement.

The review tha - bang reviewed Inxeba for the site TVSA, writing that

The performances in the movie are really good. Nakhane Touré goes all Charlize Theron “Monster” on us, being the crustiest the musician-cum-actor has ever been on screen thus far. Yet the performance that stole the show is from the young man Niza Jay Ncoyini as the initiate Kwanda. Kwanda’s face now adorns the iconic poster, is full of zest and rebellious teenage angst, and he’s a joy to watch. Niza brings passion to the role. He becomes a foil to ask a lot of questions of the protagonist Xolani … but also of the culture of initiation in general. He could have just been a plot device, a tool for agit-prop but Kwanda comes across fully fledged as a character. …
I felt like the movie meanders a lot so that by the time the movie ends, it feels more like the first act just ended and the more compelling story is about to start. … Aside from the occasional bonking between the guys, not much happens plot-wise to keep the story moving or engaging. There are strands that don’t make sense within the story that really don’t go nowhere. [sic]

The University of Johannesburg lecturer Anna-Marie Jansen van Vuuren reviewed Inxeba for the site Bioskoop, where she notes that

The director’s execution is sensitive and discreet, and the scenes are often hidden in the dusk or darkness of night to respect the elements of the initiation process. … Meanwhile, the cinematographer Paul Õsgür regularly alternates his wide shots with his closeups to focus on the characters’ feelings and reactions. … Touré and Ncoyini deliver excellent performances and the story’s suspense keeps the viewers on their toes. However, there are one or two aspects of the plot at the end of the movie that left me scratching my head.
Matthew James deserves recognition for his sound design that makes you feel as if you’re there in the Eastern Cape mountains together with the characters — at the waterfall or next to the campfire. Meanwhile João Orrechia’s soundtrack delivers just the right balance for the tone of the film.

Let me know of any other response to the film that could be included here.

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