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A true story about a handicapped African girl who becomes a champion swimmer, "The Waterbaby" is dignified family entertainment with particular appeal for kids. Though it's mainly a heroic sports story, its South African setting lets filmmakers slip in an anti-racist message. Pic should interest TV and children's markets.

A true story about a handicapped African girl who becomes a champion swimmer, “The Waterbaby” is dignified family entertainment with particular appeal for kids. Though it’s mainly a heroic sports story, its South African setting lets filmmakers slip in an anti-racist message. Pic should interest TV and children’s markets.

“Waterbaby” is producer/director Renzo Martinelli’s first feature, but his long experience in sports documentaries and commercials explains film’s slick, pro look. Especially exciting are the swimming scenes, lensed underwater and above with special equipment that allows the cameraman to move at high speed.

Tale is based on the exploits of a Sudanese girl, Gadalla Gubara, who swam 22 miles at the 1974 Capri-Naples long-distance race and came in fourth — despite being crippled in one leg. With the help of Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer, who revised the script, Martinelli switches the setting to South Africa.

Sarah (Kim Engelbrecht) is the daughter of well-to-do parents who send her to an elite school and encourage her to swim. She suffers from the double discrimination of being “colored” and having a handicap.

Gershe (Giulio Brogi), a badly worn sportswriter and drunk, becomes Sarah’s trainer after an hour of screen time and infinite coaxing. But once he gets started, Sarah is ready for the Capri-Naples race in no time. Though the South African Swimming Federation refuses to enroll her (for both of the aforementioned reasons), Gershe and his pint-sized sidekick (Ciro Esposito) refuse to take no for an answer. They follow Sarah through the grueling race and on to victory.

The characters are clearly drawn and appealing. Lithe, fresh Engelbrecht is a discovery as the heroine, demure and a little mysterious yet emotionally communicative. The Neapolitan-born Esposito, playing a 12-year-old mechanic who runs a garage in Capetown, adds a much-needed note of comic skepticism to an often saccharine storyline. Brogi does a good job of individualizing the cliche-ridden role of a down-and-out Italian who has become “buried in the sand” bumming around Africa. Denise Newman also rises above stereotypes as Sarah’s loving, courageous mother.

Though script is generally absorbing, it sometimes gets sidetracked — the dramatically unnecessary murder of Sarah’s father is a blatant example. Also, South Africa’s racial problems come in for some gross simplifications, marking “Waterbaby” as a children’s film. But these shortcomings shouldn’t hurt it commercially.

Pic’s fancy cinematography and art direction create a bright, attractive environment dominated by light blue — the color of the pool, but also of African walls and murals. A trip across the desert gives lensers a chance to show off some breathtaking natural scenery. The only false note is Mauro Pagani’s “We Are the Children”-style music track. On the rare occasions that local African sounds are used, pic benefits 100%.

Exploiting his advertising connections, Martinelli has worked out an innovative scheme for launching the film in Italy. The national swimming federation will sponsor its premiere in Rome, social-minded sportswear manufacturer Benetton is sponsoring screenings in elementary schools, and controversial ad king Oliviero Toscani designed the posters.


Production: An Istituto Luce/Italnoleggio release. A Martinelli Film Co. International/RAI-TV Channel 1/Istituto Luce production. Produced, directed by Renzo Martinelli. Screenplay, Martinelli, Maurizio D'Adda, Giulio Paradisi. Script supervision, Nadine Gordimer.

Crew: Camera (color), Fabio Cianchetti, Giuliano Giustini; camera operator, Martinelli; editor, Osvaldo Bargero; music, Mauro Pagani; art direction, Lisa Hart, Graeme Germond, Ada Legori; costumes, Titti De Micheli. Reviewed at International Recording, Rome, Feb. 8, 1994. (In Children's Film Festival, Berlin.) Running time:112 MIN.

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