Following the Bizet adaptation "U-Carmen eKhayelitsha," which won the Golden Bear at Berlin last year, second feature from director Mark Dornford-May and Cape Town theater troupe Dimpho Di Kompane likewise updates a classic tale to contemporary Africa. "Son of Man" boils down the life of Jesus Christ to 86 concise minutes, restoring layers of political motivation largely absent from "The Passion of the Christ" and adding stirring original vocal music.

Following the Bizet adaptation “U-Carmen eKhayelitsha,” which won the Golden Bear at Berlin last year, second feature from director Mark Dornford-May and Cape Town theater troupe Dimpho Di Kompane likewise updates a classic tale to contemporary Africa. “Son of Man” boils down the life of Jesus Christ to 86 concise minutes, restoring layers of political motivation largely absent from “The Passion of the Christ” and adding stirring original vocal music. More absorbing and provocative than deeply moving, pic should attract considerable distrib interest while traveling widely on fest circuit. In North America, the challenge will be attracting religious demos to the arthouse — especially black churchgoers.

While set in the fictive African “Kingdom of Judea,” script might well take place in any of the continent’s nations recently roiled by coups, dictatorships, massacres and ethnic strife.

Escaping armed militants during a civil war, Mary (erstwhile Carmen Pauline Malefane, also co-scenarist and co-composer) hides in a schoolhouse littered with the bodies of murdered children. There, she has a vision in which a boy angel tells her she will bear the Son of God.

Surviving childhood (and King Herod’s order that all minority-populace male infants be killed), Jesus (Andile Kosi) leaves home upon reaching adulthood, gathering disciples — here including several women — en route to the city. As much a resistance organizer as he is a preacher, he convinces reluctant followers to lay down their arms and adopt nonviolent tactics.

An “interim government” installed by a foreign military force is currently in power; the local majority want to negotiate a power-sharing compromise that would cut out more radical groups like Jesus’ own.

His activism and rising public profile are thus viewed with great suspicion, particularly once he performs a few healing-the-sick, raising-the-dead miracles. But politicos prefer to regard him as a harmless religious nut until Judas (Jim Ngxabaze) provides evidence suggesting he’s a more serious threat.

Liberties taken with the basic story are relatively few, though following his torture, execution and secret-mass-grave-style burial, Jesus is interestingly enough dug up by his followers and only then mounted on a crucifix — as an indictment of his murder and a spur to continued protest. The resurrection isn’t dealt with here, and the few prior fantastical events are staged in very plain, matter-of-fact terms.

Rather than buoyant Afro-pop, primarily vocal score tends toward somber choral passages and solos that showcase the operatic pipes of the leading company members. Curiously, lyrics are translated (from click-tongued Xhosa) just occasionally; fake newscast sequences are in English.

Choreography is held to a minimum, with presentation for the most part realistic, making fine use of downscale locations. Beyond sometime slo-mo, superimposition, and the presences of Satan (Andries Mbali) as well as numerous boy angels, there’s little mythic stylization — certainly none of the flashy “Jesus Christ Superstar” ilk.

All this purposeful restraint underlines tale’s resonance for modern audiences, particularly wherever poor and ethnic minorities fight for equality. As a spur for discussion in both church and educational settings, “Son of Man” could hardly be bettered.

Lenser Giulio Biccari’s crisp, clean images typify the fat-free clarity of all design and tech contribs here.

Son of Man

South Africa

Production

A Nando Arts presentation in association with Spier Films and Film & Music Entertainment of a Dimpho Di Kopane production. Produced by Mark Dornford-May. Executive producers, Stephen Daldry, Mike Downey, Pauline Malefane, Sam Taylor. Co-producers, Charles Hazelwood, Camilla Driver, Brigid Olen. Directed by Mark Dornford-May. Screenplay, Dornford-May, Andiswa Kedama, Pauline Malefane.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Giulio Biccari; editors, Anne Sopel, Ronelle Loots; music, Chares Hazelwood, Malefane, Sibulele Mjali; art director, Ernie Seegers; costume designer, Jessica Dornford-May; sound editor, Barry Donnelly; choreographer, Joel Mthethwa. Reviewed at Sundance Film Fest (World Cinema, competing), Jan. 24, 2006. Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Andile Kosi, Andries Mbali, Pauline Malefane, James Anthony, Joel Mthethwa, Sibusiso Ziqubu, Buyo Sontyaka, Sibulele Mjali, Ntobeko Twanqa, Mvakalisi Madotyeni, Ebenezer Sawuli, Mzukisi Gqadushe, Bongani Bubu, Thembela James, Nobapostile Msongelwa, Thandiwe Mesele, Jim Ngxabaze, Mvuyisi Mjali, Zamile Gantana, Ruby Mthethwa. (Xhosa and English dialogue)
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