The doctor's needle pushes through the skin, into the vein, taking us for a fleeting auditory moment into the battle raging in the woman's blood. We hear a whispered roar, a sound almost primordial, as if something is afoot inside the woman that she does not understand. She grimaces with a pain that seems larger than that from the prick of a needle. Soon, she will learn she has the AIDS virus.
In Zulu with English subtitles, this South African film, making its television debut tonight on HBO, was a nominee for best foreign language film at this year's Academy Awards. Titled "Yesterday" after its main character, it is the tale of a woman's struggle with AIDS in post-apartheid South Africa, in a traditional village where the disease has turned generous neighbors into suspicious and stigmatizing ones.
But in the hands of director Darrell James Roodt ("Place of Weeping"), "Yesterday" is far more than one woman's story. The film achieves a preciously subtle epic stature with the use of the same panoramic landscapes of the stunning South African mountains and sky that lent Roodt's "Cry, the Beloved Country" a similar quality.
Yesterday, played by Leleti Khumalo (from Roodt's "Sarafina!"), is diagnosed HIV-positive. Her husband also carries the virus and is deeply ill. Yesterday wants only to see him comfortable in death and to see her daughter, Beauty, enter school and do what her mother never did: learn to read and write.
It is slow going, though, as if Roodt and producers Anant Singh and Helena Spring are relentlessly reminding us that this is serious and artful stuff. And being a socially conscious film carrying the imprimatur of the Nelson Mandela Foundation certainly would seem to set up the film as a kind of teachy-preachy venture -- except that in the end, one realizes how stunningly evocative this serious and artful stuff actually turns out to be.
Khumalo has channeled quite perfectly a typical rural Zulu woman, with her blend of softness and fortitude, of strength and humility; the characters, the conversations, the costumes, the setting all ring with authenticity. And her face just tells stories -- it is that expressive, even in stillness, with her eyes blazing, even as she appears stoical.
But we are held rapt by how Roodt and company have shot Yesterday's world. There is such richness in the use of silence -- it envelops the mother and daughter in a cocoon as they walk along a dirt road, the silence broken only by the child wondering, "Mama, why am I not a bird?"
We feel the blows and kicks that rain down on Yesterday when she travels to Johannesburg to inform her husband, a migrant laborer in the mines, that she is sick and he should be tested. They are silhouetted in daytime shadow that offers just enough light to make out the ruthless beating. We don't need to hear it. We feel it.
In another scene, Yesterday sobs. Her shoulders shudder. We don't see her face. Her cries carry our eye toward the majestic peaks on the far horizon. And we know this sobbing is larger than one woman's pain.
Yesterday (11/2 hours) debuts tonight at 9 on HBO.