It was a few years ago that Be Phat Motel duo Michael Matthews and Sean Drummond rose to the occasion with stunning short sci-fi proof adaptation of Charlie Human’s Apocalypse Now Now. With that project in tow for a full feature film presentation, they’ve also become headturners in the festival circuit with their latest debut at the help further putting South Africa in the lucrative crosshairs with revenge/redemption western, Five Fingers For Marseilles.
Long before becoming the kind of milestone cinema drawing crowds in Canada, Korea, the U.S. and other fests abroad, Five Fingers For Marseilles sat in development for eight years before filming in 2016. Matthews’ research, in addition to covering tens of thousands of miles of land throughout South Africa, also included listening to stories from Sesotho locals – some which he once even stated to 702 were pretty gruesome in comparison to what he chose for his story influences. Needless to say, Five Fingers For Marseilles doesn’t abstain from its own flair of elements reflective of the barren, haunting and often foreboding millieu that encompasses his vision.
From the start, film eases into a cinematic expedition of South Africa’s apartheid millieu where the small town of Railway once-thrived amid construction. That town sat atop a hill in the village of Marseilles, one of several villages named after European cities, and erected with the arrival of colonial rule. Local courruption and greed from police eventually gave way, rendering Marseilles as the last village still standing on its withered legs. Therein lived the child residents of Railway: young girl Lerato, and the key titular ‘Five’ – Zulu (the fearless leader), Unathi (a.k.a. Pastor), Luyanda (a.k.a. Cockaroach), Bongani (a.k.a. Pockets) and Tau (a.k.a. the Lion) – dubbed as defenders of their town from enemies outside, and within.
Their mantra eventually roots itself as a character testament the minute Tau commits a brutal murder in Lerato’s defense before exiling himself, leaving the other four to fend for themselves. Decades later, Tau (Vuyo Dabula), now a hardened criminal with a crew of his own and fresh out of prison, makes his way back to Marseilles and his childhood township of Railway, unannounced. As he reacquaints himself with old stomping grounds, he comes to see and observe the stark changes that have happened since his departure – from Lerato (Zethu Dlomo) and her young teen son, Sizwe (Lizwi Vilakazi), to Luyanda (Mduduzi Mabaso) and his corrupt handle on Marseilles as the sheriff where Bongani (Kenneth Nkosi) gets to live out his political ambitions.
To make matters worse, not only is the reunion between Tau and his former childhood friends rife with tragedy and grief, the town’s symptoms come full circle with the arrival of Sepoko (Hamilton Dhlamini), a maniacal crimeboss and his posse of Night Runners led by Thuto (Warren Masemola). This, coupled with the grim secrecy that plagues the town, reveals an awakening challenge for him as he’s forced to come to terms with his complacency, his identity, his evil acts and the man he’s defined himself as, in lieu of a lingering call of duty that beckons the Five Fingers to rise once more, no matter whose hands are willing to pull the trigger. The fight is only one of two that will truly determine the fate of the fingers and the ensnared village of Marseille in whole.
The film takes off at slow-burn capacity and it definitely exasperates at times. For its duration however (and Matthews certainly could have given us a film longer by a half-an-hour if he wanted to), Five Fingers For Marseilles largely achieves its goals in trendsetting South African cinema. It’s hardly a cookie cutter western from a genre stand point in conjunction with its creative angle – full of artistic expression and vast views of both mountainous and flat South African terrain, combined with a mystical aura stemming from its characters.
The performances alone make this film worth every minute between our actors and their childhood likenesses. Dabula signifies with strong caliber fitting for the persona written for him – a stoic drifter looking for something but not knowing exactly what it is until the very thing he’s trying to find suddenly finds him. Dhlamini turns in a staunch performance as the film’s menacing villain, Sepoko, as he teases the grip of his stronghold on the village in between scenes.
Also key to the crux of the film is Bogani who, not for nothing, has his eyes set on Lerato, an interest that soon takes an intriguing twist as the film comes full circle. Mabaso’s Luyanda has a full-on chip on his shoulder that hasn’t waned from his heyday of telling his peers to ‘fuck off’ – an obvious compensation for his one physical affliction despite his own strength and internal turmoil and guilt. He’s done what he’s done in order to survive and that eventually meant hurting and even killing innocent people in the process.
Actor Aubrey Poolo’s role of Unathi is mainly the only role among our key cast that abstains from much of the A-story as Matthews and Drummond deemed it since he’s grown into actual priesthood, though, understandably not without his share of sins along the way. That particular observation weighs a little on the consequential shootout that ensues and speaks to that deeper connoatation in their once-shared mantra as the ‘Five’. For the kind of message that aspect of the film induces, it certainly proves impactful in its generational appeal and universal resonance. Ever read things Things Fall Apart? Different equation with a few varying dynamics on its chosen template, sure… But same concept in terms of self-sacrifice, only on more noble terms.
Actors Anthony Oseyemi and Brendon Daniels lend amiable support in the roles of Congo and Slim, members of Tau’s outfit in his latter years. Kenneth Fok and Dean Fourie respectively take the lead thereafter as the town’s most notable Chinese resident Wei, and local salesman Honest John who is never one to say no to a drink at the local tavern, particularly the Grey Lady, owned by Lerato’s father, Jonah (Jerry Mofokeng).
The cinematography rests solely on what it sees with as much mininal engagement as possible. This has no negative bearing on its transition from light to dark moments, to violent ones. The violence certainly carries a compelling tone to it, principally in one scene where Tau is forced to step out of hismelf and smash a big guy’s head in to save Jonah. Oseyemi’s Congo even wields a machete to pepper things up some.
What you get with Five Fingers For Marseilles is a contemplative epic packed with drama, intensity and a variety of conflict that sparks the film’s appear in part as a western. It’s an adventure into spirited cinema that guarantees something we rarely from a territory of the world known largely for its partial use for a number of film and TV show locations. What you get is a taste of the raw fruit right off the tree from the motherland with all its bitterness and underlying nourishment and value. It’s one of the freshest and competitive western hybrids you’ll ever see and far be it for me to challenge Matthews on whatever ideas he might have for a sequel. Five Fingers Of Maeseilles counts the ways it rightfully so holds its own and should there be a follow-up, one hopes it doesn’t take another eight years to manifest into reality.
Like this Article? Subscribe to Our Feed!
FIVE FINGERS FOR MARSEILLES (2018)
FIVE FINGERS FOR MARSEILLES is a well-crafted, all-consuming western drama that mesmerizes.
- Rich in its approach to the genre, solid performances and characterization carries the film from start to finish.
- It's a little long, but for what we're offered, the two-hour runtime is purely forgivable.