The admirable ambition to frame the film with all the iconoclastic, outlaw verve of its rogue antihero is both the making and the unmaking of “Sew the Winter to my Skin,” the proto-Western sophomore feature from rising South African powerhouse Jahmil X.T. Qubeka. As shown in his well-received noir-indebted debut “Of Good Report,” Qubeka has filmmaking energy to burn, but this time it sparks and flares over much broadened horizons — often literally, in the form of returning DP Jonathan Kovel’s striking landscape photography, featuring vistas so huge they have visibly different weather on one side than the other.
But the narrative enlargement is less successful: While the project of infusing a local legend with grandly cinematic, mythic status is a worthy one, the film can’t quite get out of its own way, and the result is incoherently at odds with itself, with two outsized personalities — the hero John Kepe (Ezra Mabengeza) and the exhaustingly inventive filmmaker himself — jostling for attention.
It’s tempting to call Kepe, a bandit who roamed the rural Great Karoo region in the pre-Apartheid 1940s and ’50s, a South African Robin Hood, although Australia’s Ned Kelly legend might be a closer comparison point. Kepe does indeed steal livestock from the rich, here personified by odious white landowner and swastika-brandishing Nazi sympathizer Botha (Peter Kurth) to give to the starving poor. But his value to his Xhosa community is less practical than symbolic. It’s hard to picture Robin Hood looming up, the way Kepe does in his introduction, as a quasi-monstrous Swamp Thing plastered in mud and worse, but Ned Kelly, whose homemade suit of armor reportedly made him seem more ogre than man, likely would not have balked.
Qubeka chooses to play almost the entirety of this overlong film without dialogue. It’s a daring gambit that, along with a tricksy flashback structure and the juddering, abrasive editing, not to mention a photographic style that ranges erratically from those bright, beautiful Sergio Leone wides to rather murky, low-lit interiors that can be difficult to make out, gives the film an experimental edge not quite evocative enough to justify the loss of clarity.
Often, we have the frustrating impression of having arrived on the scene just after the crucial information has been imparted, or just before. And with Braam du Toit’s impressively haunting score only able to convey so much emotional information, the absence of enlightening dialogue not only makes intentions unclear, it also forces the actors into a stiff, inorganic mode of interaction. What little context we get relies largely on the awkward framing device of a well-meaning white reporter (Bok van Blerk) who delivers a little background in the stories he writes up, conveyed to us in laborious macro panning shots of the words being hammered onto paper by his typewriter keys.
Elsewhere, the film’s flaws are ones of overreach and therefore would be easily forgivable if they didn’t work against the whole mythologization project. Despite Mabengeza’s impressively physical performance, the chopped-up, jerky structure never lets us get close to Kepe, while other potentially rich avenues, such as Botha’s Nazi affiliations, are consigned to background noise, alluded to but never explored.
Some of the supporting cast do fare a little better: Kandyse McClure, as the film’s sole woman of note, has an eloquence in her light amber, tigerish eyes that compensates for her relative muteness, while the film’s most compellingly conflicted character is played by Zolisa Xaluva, identified as “Black Wyatt Earp” in the credits, a mustachioed gunslinger disdained by the whites who pay him, and loathed by his own people, whom he persecutes. Yet here again, the reluctance to elucidate means his motivations remain a mystery: In his outlandish Western-hero getup, this fascinatingly contradictory character is reduced to an archetype and batted around at the mercurial whims of a filmmaking approach that is showy without being revealing.
“Sew the Winter to my Skin” bears all the hallmarks of a smaller, leaner project that took on unnecessary bloat somewhere along the way. So while its undeniable flair and impeccable cultural credentials have already seen the film put forward as South Africa’s foreign language Oscar hopeful, it’s hard to see it truly breaking out from a respectable run on the festival circuit, where the peculiar, uneven spectacle of a filmmaker outmatching his folk-hero protagonist in convention-snubbing swagger should find its most appreciative niche.