NEW YORK — An old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, the Zimbabwe feature “Neria” is a strong film about an indomitable woman. Already a big hit on its home turf, pic looms as an unusual attraction for African-American audiences tired of Hollywood exploitation, and has recently been released in Washington, D.C.
Debuting director Godwin Mawuru harks back to a form resembling 19th-century melodrama, complete with lip-smacking villain who all but twirls his moustache. However, the tsuris piled on the long-suffering heroine leads to a satisfying climax right out of a “Billy Jack” movie.
Jesesi Mungoshi is Neria, a very happily married woman who sews clothing (she’s seen selling to white American tourists in a friendly scene) and lives in the city with her husband, Patrick (Emmanual Mbrimi), and their two kids.
His family, under matriarch Violet Ndlovu, still lives in their small village and follows ancient traditions. The clash between traditional and modern ways is the cause of Neria’s problems. When her husband is killed riding on his bike in a car accident, his relatives use tradition to exploit the tragedy and shunt the widow aside.
The eldest surviving brother no longer lives nearby, so another brother, Phineas (Dominic Kanaveti as the rottenest of screen villains), takes it upon himself to “protect” Patrick’s family. The audience already knows he’s selfish and boastful, but when he steals cash and the family bank book out of his late brother’s closet, one can expect the worst.
Neria’s travails mount up alarmingly. Phineas takes the family car, has her furniture shipped to his village and even takes her children to live with him.
Fortunately, a modern neighbor and co-worker, Connie (Kubi Indi), hips Neria to a lawyer she knows, with Mr. Machacha (Claude Maredza) giving the heroine solid advice on how to regain custody of her kids and husband’s property by legal means.
Sharp writing, credited to editor and co-producer Louise Riber, spells out all the issues even-handedly in two courtroom scenes. Thanks to having a shrewd lawyer of his own (Anthony Chinyanga), Phineas mounts a convincing case on why, according to custom, he and not Neria should be in charge of the family estate. After some suspense, a judge sets things right.
Heartwarming coda has Neria assert her new-found feminism and defy the culture by refusing to marry one of her brothers-in-law after a year of mourning has passed. Her reconciliation with mother-in-law Ambuya is a touching finale. Wearing the weight of the world on her face, actress Jesesi Mungoshi is a find as the Earth Mother Neria.
Of course Kanaveti overplays his rotten role, even laughing in cruel glee when the other characters are out of earshot, but that’s part of the fun. Supporting cast is solid, particularly Ndlovu as the cranky but good-hearted mother-in-law.
Film is enlivened by the musical score by Oliver Mtukudzi, who also plays Neria’s brother Jethro, a popular singer.