Burning Truths in 'Catch a Fire'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006

What's most riveting about "Catch a Fire" is the truth from which it springs.

The movie recounts the true story of a South African factory worker whose political consciousness was forged in the fire of apartheid, and it's written by a woman whose parents were directly involved in the struggle.

Shawn Slovo, the daughter of white Jewish activists Joe Slovo and Ruth First, based her script on the recollections of Patrick Chamusso, a black foreman who was arrested, interrogated and tortured in 1980 for an act of terrorism he didn't commit. Politically radicalized by the experience, Chamusso escaped to Mozambique and joined the military wing of the African National Congress, where he served under Slovo's father -- by then the ANC's military mastermind and leader of the South African Communist Party.

Years later, at her father's urging, Slovo recorded Chamusso's story on tape and started writing. The result is a movie that's often guilty of Hollywood-style pandering, but also a compelling chronicle of one man's transformation from apolitical citizen to ANC foot soldier. And it's a film that successfully evokes the atmosphere of the time -- the torture, the government's exhaustive surveillance of its black citizenry, and the palpable sense of oppression as 3 million whites enjoyed the fruits of a beautiful country while 25 million blacks toiled for their pleasure.

Patrick (Derek Luke of "Antwone Fisher"), resigned to a system that provides a relatively comfortable life for his family, avoids political trouble until it finds him: He's blamed for a terrorist explosion at the oil refinery where he works. To reveal his alibi would expose a secret about his personal life, so he appears guilty, is brutally tortured and the course of his destiny set.

These torture scenes -- though depicted with relative subtlety -- have an inevitable timeliness. Is there a moral difference between Special Branch Col. Nic Vos (Tim Robbins) and the torturers at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? There is also the topical irony of an innocent man abused in prison who turns to radicalism. But as these issues pass -- almost inevitably -- through the minds of the audience, the filmmakers choose not to make a post-Sept. 11 political statement, keeping the film bound to Patrick's world, where the heroes and villains are as easy to identify as gunslingers in a John Wayne western.

Slovo, who also wrote the 1988 film "A World Apart," a moving account of her family's hardships in the face of government harassment, shows her deft hand again -- but only in places. The Vos household, with detailed scenes of the colonel's good-natured interaction with his family, seems inspired from firsthand experiences growing up in South Africa. And the hidden world of the freedom fighters in Mozambique, where soldiers make a pact to die for their beliefs, has a startling, original quality we don't remember seeing before in films about South Africa. Still, for most of the film, hers is a straightforward recitation of Patrick's story.

As Patrick, Luke feels remarkably authentic, disappearing into the role with his South African accent, haunted skittishness and tense movements. His turn reminds us how all too often, we're led by a white hand into the darkest continent -- most notably in 1987's "Cry Freedom," in which Kevin Kline (as white journalist Donald Woods) acts as a tour guide to the far more significant life of black activist Steve Biko, played with great authority by Denzel Washington. So it's rewarding in "Catch a Fire" not only to see a black character dominate the story, but -- in screen time that otherwise would have gone to white outsiders -- observe his immediate social circle in greater detail. For instance, we get to appreciate Patrick's wife, Precious (Bonnie Mbuli), as a woman of inner strength and resilience, adding another layer to the story.

Meanwhile, Robbins makes quite the meal of playing Nic. One moment he's interrogating Patrick in a dingy cell; the next, he's bringing him to Sunday dinner with his family -- even regaling him with folk songs on his guitar. In contrast to Luke's performance, we're all too aware of Robbins as actor. He's intentionally cast against type (the outspoken liberal as an Afrikaner ideologue), and his evil twinkle smacks of his satiric turn as the right-wing folksinger in 1992's "Bob Roberts."

Director Phillip Noyce built a reputation in the 1990s with such action-driven films as "Dead Calm" and "Patriot Games." But he evolved to more politically conscious works with 2002's "Rabbit-Proof Fence," about the institutional racism against Aborigines in his native Australia, and "The Quiet American," a tacit condemnation of American meddling in the Far East.

With "Catch a Fire," however, he seems to want things both ways: a serious movie that switches to almost-popcorn entertainment.

At first, we're watching a finely textured, sensitive treatment of one man's struggle, but as Patrick's ultimate agenda becomes clear, we're suddenly caught up in an action flick of ticking clocks, screeching cars and frantic cops. Did the makers of "Die Hard" suddenly invade the set? The shift from art to action is so jarring that the audience feels ambushed. Noyce may be trying to extend a message of moral triumph to a wider audience, but he stands to lose his more thoughtful viewers. When the movie presents the real Chamusso in a postscript, we are reminded just how far we've been pulled away from the real story -- the one written so eloquently in the deep wrinkles of his face.

Catch a Fire (102 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for scenes of torture and abuse, violence and profanity. Contains English, Afrikaans and Zulu, with subtitles.

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