A stunning look at small-town intolerance and an unusual solution for a South African Boer family forms the bedrock of “Paljas.” The country’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar is a handsomely made, compelling drama with upbeat potential as an arthouse hit in top international territories. Pic is a tad too long, but deft cutting would significantly improve its commercial chances and bring home its points even more forcefully.
Set in rural Toorwater, the tale revolves around Hendrik MacDonald (Marius Weyers), the railroad depot manager, and his family. They are not a happy lot. His wife, Katrina (Aletta Bezuidenhout), is losing patience with her husband’s bluster and inattention; their young son, Willem (Larry Leyden), stopped talking because of some undisclosed shock two years earlier. And teenage daughter Emma (Liezel van der Merwe) is at an age when she’s highly sensitive about her budding sexuality.
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The MacDonalds are physically cut off from the town, and exist in a bubble where time appears to have stood still for close to a century. It’s a rather shocking reminder of the country’s history of strife, regardless of color or station.
But an unexpected event shakes the family from its customary way of life. One morning they awake to the sounds of wild animals and discover on their doorstep an abandoned circus train. A dispatch to the head office brings back the reply that it has been off-loaded at the wrong station.
When the trainers and performers arrive a short time later, the care and maintenance of the beasts upends everyone’s daily routines. The rough-and-tumble ways of the gypsy lot chafe with the locals, but during their brief stay the troupe has an incalculable effect on the railroad family. Only later will Hendrik realize that they brought the paljas to the household. That difficult-to-translate term means, roughly, magic, or the ability to make things right.
But the circus folk may have left something else behind: the clown-mime Manuel (Ellis Pearson). He takes up residence in a shack close to the MacDonalds’ home and, unbeknownst to the rest of the family, befriends Willem, teaching him sleight-of-hand tricks and the costume and makeup of his trade. Or does he?
Why indeed would the traveling players leave behind one of their brood? And why is it that apparently only the young boy sees Manuel? Whether real or imagined, the clown casts a positive spell over the family. But the nearby townsfolk find the change threatening.
First-time feature director Katinka Heyns demonstrates an extraordinary ability to convey complex emotions. There’s an absolutely chilling quality to the fomenting violence in the town, and she evinces paljas in the way she weaves the unexpected and mystical into often banal family dynamics.
But helmer has a tendency to overstate, particularly when it comes to wrapping up the saga. The story continues past its emotional climax and resolution with a confrontation that feels like an afterthought, and tacks on a less-than-satisfying coda. Handsomely shot by Koos Roets, the isolated, stark environment becomes a key dramatic element of the film. The cast is uniformly strong, beginning with Weyers (“The Gods Must Be Crazy”). His character possesses a blissful blindness while demonstrating a capacity to grow that’s genuinely affecting. The rest of the family members are forcefully played, with Heyns culling exceptional work from her young performers and getting the perfect, fanciful ambiguity from Pearson.
“Paljas” was filmed simultaneously in an English version, which may be more appropriate in some territories. Still, it’s hard to imagine a more powerful version than the one reviewed.