A hot-blooded drama decrying the way South Africans have repressed the years of apartheid, Ramadan Suleman’s “Zulu Love Letter” (his second feature after “Fools”) drags its journalist-heroine through prison and beatings, dangerous investigative reporting, writer’s block and a broken family in an over-packed but emotionally intense mix. Spearheading the story is a passionate central perf by Pamela Nomvete Marimbe, whose energy pulls together many of the loose ends. Pic’s action-thriller component makes it one of the more commercially viable offerings screened at the fall fests showcasing South Africa’s emerging cinema.
A screeching, fast-paced opener introduces Thandeka (Marimbe) as a woman left for dead in a parking garage. The film is murky in its explanations, and forces viewers to piece the backstory together; apparently, though, this is a scene from the past after Thandeka was released by the secret police during the apartheid regime, jailed for having witnessed the murder a young girl, Dineo. Her unborn child, Mangi, was born deaf and dumb from the beatings Thandeka received in prison.
Mangi (Mpumi Malatsi) is 13 now. Thandeka is thirtysomething, separated from her partner and is enduring big trouble at work. She shrilly attacks the white editor of her Johannesburg newspaper in one of the over-the-top scenes that hurts the pic’s credibility. Like her dogmatic black-is-beautiful rap, pronounced in the bosom of her family, it seems there mainly to underline how radical she is.
Unexpectedly, she receives a visit from Me’Tau (Sophie Mgcina), Dineo’s mother, who asks her to testify about the girl’s death. It might get the authorities to help find her daughter’s remains, so she can she be buried and her spirit set free. Thandeka rises to the challenge, putting her family in mortal danger from the far-from-finished hit men who once held her captive.
From this point on, pic spins into a fairly engrossing thriller, even though not all plot points are crystal clear and editing could have been tighter. Suleman obviously has a lot to say about recent history and the way memories and guilt over apartheid are being repressed in a lacerated country still mourning its dead. The thriller package helps him get his ideas across, but film is slowed down by the psychological complexity of the background situations, including a subplot about the difficult relationship between Thandeka and Mangi.
Though sometimes overemphatic and theatrical, Marimbe’s portrayal of a truly independent woman who is beautiful, intelligent and very angry keeps tension high. Young Malatsi projects an inner strength that is a welcome contrast. Interesting use is made of sign language, which is used by mother and daughter to communicate; otherwise English predominates over Zulu.
Visual interest is added by Manuel Teran’s fast-moving camera, stop-motion photography and generally up-front lensing.