An “official” cinematic portrait made with the cooperation of its subject, “Mandela” offers an expansive chronicle of South African leader Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary life, but one that’s more dutifully reverential than revelatory or exciting. Though handsomely packaged by Island Pictures and Jonathan Demme’s Clinica Estetico outfit, the biodoc’s theatrical prospects look iffy, though it’s a natural for fests and TV airing worldwide.
If helmers Jo Menell and Angus Gibson adopt a frankly admiring view of Mandela, it’s easy to see why. His life possesses a mythic sweep and grandeur. Born in 1918 to a tribal father who had four wives, Mandela was initiated into the tribe at age 16. He recalls the ritual circumcision was so painful that he could barely say the words, “I am a man.”
Trained to be a tribal leader and educated at Christian schools, he left home in 1941 to avoid a forced marriage.
In Johannesburg, he studied law and became involved with the cause of black liberation, working with real estate agent and African National Congress leader Walter Sisulu. He also helped found South Africa’s first black law firm, and he angered the white legal system by being brilliant, proud and successful rather than obsequious.
Pic shows that the Mandela of these years was quite different from the benign , grandfatherly icon of recent years. Trained as a boxer, he was physically imposing and charismatic, with a handsome, dazzling smile. It is recalled that he was very gregarious and sociable, keeping a lavishly stocked liquor cabinet, though he himself never drank.
The constant demands of his legal and political activities came at a cost, though. His first wife remembers that he always put work first, which helped doom their marriage.
His meeting with his second wife, Winnie, was clearly a turning point in his life. The film presents their conjunction as a great love story: she remained his most loyal supporter for decades. Though pic commendably doesn’t skirt their eventual marital problems and Winnie’s own difficulties, which included being charged with murder, this personal side of Mandela is approached in a manner that feels obligingly tactful and circumspect.
But the implicit suggestion that the man’s public life always predominated probably isn’t off the mark. As pic chronicles his 27-year imprisonment on Robben Island, off of Cape Town, where he became a worldwide symbol of the struggle against apartheid and for democracy, it becomes clear that Mandela saw himself as an instrument of history, waiting to serve justice and change.
When the chance to lead came, he was ready. The story that the docu tells in its latter stages will be familiar to anyone who watched the news in the past decade, but that doesn’t keep it from being dramatic and stirring here.
As apartheid is abolished, democracy instituted and Nobel co-laureate Mandela is elected South Africa’s first black president, one chapter of a vast historical saga closes on a note of hope and personal triumph. Certainly, few such transfers of power have ever been accomplished so peacefully, and “Mandela” makes a strong case that it may not have happened in the same way without exactly the right leader conducting himself impeccably throughout.
Well-shot and edited, pic also benefits from the score by Cedric Gradus Samson and Hugh Masekela and a soundtrack that includes an abundance of infectious South African music.