What we see at first could be somewhere in North America: plains of golden grasses, reddish rocks, even a cow. It is only when the narrator begins to speak that the spell is broken: “Five Fingers for Marseilles,” which quietly subverts the traditional American Western in the context of post-South African apartheid where the cowboys are the Indians, has some moments in English. But the dialogue is mostly in Xhosa and Southern Sotho (with English subtitles).
At first you’re not aware of the historical context. You don’t see signs of modernity, but there will be evidence of this later. The narrator continues, “First came the trains and with them came the settlers bringing their towns with them: Paris, Roma, Barcelona … and Marseilles, and they called it their land and for us who’d been there before, they put us on top of a hill, out of sight and they called it Railway because most of us were working on the train lines. When Marseilles was happy, Railway was fine. It wasn’t much, but it was ours. But when the towns started to die … Paris, Roma Marseilles began to worry. And when Marseilles began to crumble, they took it out on those closest at hand. But it wasn’t their land. And some of us were prepared to fight for it.”
And this is how five young boys became “brothers with one purpose who made a pact to ride together until their battle was won.”
The five friends are the leader Mosemodi, known as Zulu; Tau, also known as Lion; Unathi, the storyteller and narrator, is known as Pastor; Luyanda, the broken one they call Cockroach; and the wealthy Bongani is known as Pockets. Besides the boys, there is one girl, “their heart and soul,” Lerato, the sweetheart of Zulu.
Listening to the radio, they hear a voice of the resistance explaining, “Instead of changing the constitution so was to accommodate the just demands of the majority of the people they are changing the constitution to perpetuate the status quo. The resultant development of that is of course the continuation of the armed struggle in South Africa.”
Zulu warns that there will be violence, but says, “The minute we cross the line; they’ll cross the line.” Instead of horses (although a white horse will appear), they have rickety bicycles and instead of guns they have slingshots.
According to Pastor, “The land is all the scripture we need. It was here before us and it will be when we’re gone. It’s our duty to protect it.” And, he adds with caution, “Even from each other.”
The boys practice taking aim at each other, but one uses a rock and when three white corrupt police officers come to shakedown the black people in the shanty town of Railway, Lion, the most ruthless, crosses the line. This leads to the murder of the white men and Lion flees, leaving the others to face the consequences of his act.
Twenty years later, Tau (now Vuyo Dabula — the child actors are not listed in the press materials) has become a hardened criminal and returns to Railway and Marseilles after his release from prison. He searches for Zulu, but instead finds Lerato (Zethu Dlomo), Pastor (Aubrey Poolo) and Luyanda (Mduduzi Mabaso). The new extortion gang in town is black instead of white. Defending a local salesman, Honest John (Dean Fourie), Tau gains a friend. The new gang bullies a grocer, Wei (Kenneth Fok), and Letaro’s family members who manage a bar.
New Marseilles is under the mayorship of Bongani (Kenneth Nkosi), but this town is “rotten.” It is “still born,” he says.
Tau is the strong, silent hero, who at first won’t give his name, saying he’s “nobody.” There’s a mournful wail in the music (by James Matthes) that recalls Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks for Sergio Leone’s so-called spaghetti Westerns. Shaun Lee’s cinematography recalls the lonely deserts of the American Southwest (or Spain) and a burning sun. But Sean Drummond’s script and Michael Matthews’ direction asks us to confront a different reality — the way the West was lost by the Native Americans.
Here, instead of the original colonizers — the Spanish and their mestizo descendants being defended, the heroes here are the indigenous people, first fighting against the Europeans. Yet, just as government corruption set Mexicans against each other, the indigenous people here end up fighting against each other. There is no white savior, but there is a white sidekick, Honest John, and an Asian one, Wei (“China”).
The movie’s tagline is “There are no good men,” which might translate as, “If you live by the gun, you’ll die by the gun,” so don’t expect a happy ending. This is a beautifully bleak tale of the morass left by apartheid, but also by the weaker aspects of human nature.
“Five Fingers of Marseilles” premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival. It opens at the newly opened Glendale Laemmle on Friday, Sept. 14.