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ĎA Dry White Seasoní

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 22, 1989


Euzhan Palcy
Donald Sutherland;
Janet Suzman;
Jurgen Prochnow;
Zakes Mokae;
Susan Sarandon;
Marlon Brando
Under 17 restricted

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"A Dry White Season" is political cinema so deeply felt it attains a moral grace. A bitter medicine, a painful reminder, it grieves for South Africa as it recounts the atrocities of apartheid. Yes, it is a story already told on a grander scale, but never with such fervor.

As in "Cry Freedom" and "A World Apart," the movie focuses on a white protagonist transformed -- a soft-spoken Afrikaner who awakes from his complacency to find he is essentially powerless in a police state, a dupe who has lost his freedom while ignoring the rights of others. Odd that a black director would choose this perspective, but Euzhan Palcy is after all adapting a novel by Afrikaner Andre Brink.

The film, set against the political upheaval of 1967, tells a tale of two families, pointedly pitting the idyllic life of the du Toits against the proud subsistence of the Ngubenes. Though loving, law-abiding clans, both will be broken into bits and fitted into Palcy's mosaic of injustice, ignorance and greed.

The South Africa Palcy depicts is a hothouse for sadists, a nation in which "good" men, such as Ben du Toit, look the other away. Donald Sutherland is the rather too gentle Ben, a history teacher becalmed in his Johannesburg Eden, tended by Gordon Ngubene (Winston Ntshona) whose own back yard in Soweto has become a killing field. Gordon turns to Ben when his son disappears along with other Soweto schoolchildren, who are variously shot down and arrested by police at a peaceful demonstration.

Ben tut-tuts, certain that a polite but firm inquiry will resolve what is no doubt a bureaucratic snafu. But while Ben wasn't looking, the benevolent society he imagined became a police state. There is nothing subtle about Special Branch Capt. Stolz (Jurgen Prochnow), a storm trooper who is torturing little kids in the other room. He's slime from the bottom of the gene pool, but oblivious Ben readily accepts his assurances.

When Gordon continues his search, he is detained and beaten to death by Stolz's men, who claim he committed suicide. On seeing Gordon's burned and bruised body, Ben can no longer deny the truth. "I'll ask McKenzie {a lawyer} to help," says Ben, still something of a limp rag. "If it makes you feel good," says Stanley, an enigmatic taxi driver played by South African exile Zakes Mokae.

Sutherland is a particularly sober version of the father he played in "Ordinary People," trying to keep his household together. Abandoned by his wife and daughter, he finds allies in his young son, a journalist (Susan Sarandon) and a garrulous lawyer (Marlon Brando, corpulent but masterly as an African Clarence Darrow). He advises Ben to forget about Gordon's death, for "justice and law are distant cousins ... but in South Africa, they're not related at all." While the director manipulates her agenda, she shows tolerance for her enemies, seeming to understand their motivations, creating some of her strongest scenes in confrontations between Ben and his family. The Ngubenes are not so fully drawn, but the eloquent South African actors (associates of Athol Fugard) give them body.

"A Dry White Season" is preaching to the choir, a movie we've seen before, not an easy sell. Its lessons are applicable from Johannesburg to Bensonhurst.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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