A grand, desolate expanse of hessian-rough desert, subject to unforgiving seasonal extremes of heat and ice, and whose scattered residents have mostly learned to live hard and die harder, South Africa’s Great Karoo is a region that really ought to have housed a thousand horse operas by now. It hasn’t, but an ambitious new generation of filmmakers is catching up to its possibilities. That atmospheric backdrop was the best thing last year’s overworked, Oscar-submitted period adventure “Sew the Winter to My Skin” had going for it; leaner, meaner and altogether more exciting is “Flatland,” an exhilarating fusion of contemporary western, <em>policier</em> and girls-gone-wild road movie that kicked off this year’s Berlinale Panorama program with a wallop.
The third feature from distinctively voiced writer-director Jenna Bass — who also co-wrote last year’s Kenyan Cannes headline-grabber “Rafiki” — “Flatland” represents something of a feminist milestone for a national cinema where genre film in particular has hitherto been a boys’ game. Wittier and more kinetic than the predominantly solemn South African fare that has popped through on the international festival circuit in recent years, Bass’s film ought to travel widely on the strength of its crowd-pleasing story switch-ups and strikingly integrated racial and gender politics — virtues undiminished by an admittedly drawn-out last act that feels a little drunk on its own momentum. Adventurous distributors with a taste for world-meets-Hollywood cinema should investigate; international casting directors, meanwhile, should note the film’s sensational trio of female leads.
South African audiences may be quicker than others to see the full network of social and cultural faultlines cracking under the film’s setup, though Bass’s tangy script — written in a wonderfully elastic, authentic Anglo-Afrikaans mashup — brings them all to the surface soon enough. Shot in dizzy, confrontational closeup, the opening scene plunges us directly into the headspace of virginal mixed-race teenager Natalie (Nicole Fortuin) on what appears to be the less-than-joyous occasion of her marriage to white policeman Bakkies (De Klerk Oelofse); viewed from behind a cheap froufrou veil, Fortuin’s anxious, simmering gaze clues us into her limited life options before she utters a word. After being raped in the marital bed, she arms herself and flees to the stable of her beloved childhood horse, before a mishandled set-to with the local preacher leaves him dead and her on the run.
Before leaving town, however, she hooks up with her best friend Poppie (Izel Bezuidenhout), a dim-bulb, pregnant-to-bursting Afrikaner who had escape on her mind well before this compelling turn of events. Like a younger, more clueless Thelma and Louise, with an old horse instead of a T-Bird, they head for distant Johannesburg — assisted by Poppie’s older truck-driver boyfriend Branko (Clayton Evertson), whom just about anyone else could see is a denim-wrapped pile of bad news. Men live to let women down in this arid world, as the formidable Beauty Cuba (Faith Baloyi) knows all too well: a lone-ranger detective on the girls’ tail, her investment in catching them is tangled up in her own bloodshot romantic history.
Equally sympathetic, impossibly opposed and deftly triangulated, the intersecting personal objectives of these three women keep “Flatland” sinuous and unpredictable even once its older-school genre mechanics start snapping pleasingly into place. Bass writes these character with palpable care and tricky moral shading, even if the stacked endings of a convoluted finale labor a little too hard to give each one equal resolution. The drama here is dense with commentary (some tacit, some brashly forthright) on the deep-rooted misogyny fought by women in a post-apartheid South Africa still a long way from intersectional democracy. Staggered ladders of race and class privilege (with the volatile figure of Poppie, in particular, at the top of one and the bottom of another) likewise color and complicate the action.
Bass’s three stars seize the material with hungry swagger, etching a high-contrast triptych of put-upon South African womanhood between them. Baloyi’s superb Beauty Cuba, as cool and collected as the soap operas she compulsively watches are ripely overwrought, feels like a character who could be serialized in future projects. Fortuin’s quietly haunted child bride movingly finds shape and resolve before our eyes; as both her best hope and worst influence, Bezuidenhout is the film’s frayed, sparking livewire.
In the free, friction-based energy of the film’s performance style and the ragged lyricism of the filmmaking itself —with its happy mixing of gravelly realist texture and romantic metaphor — there are shades of Andrea Arnold’s work in “Flatland.” Ultimately, however, it’s a jar of very South African honey, with its keen ear for local lingo and an eye for physical particularity in faces and locations alike. Home-grown culture is extensively sampled, from glimpsed episodes of long-running televisual institution “Generations” to the jangly mix of local beats and boeremusiek that peppers the vibrant soundtrack. Bass and cinematographer Sarah Cunningham even land on an earthy dirt-pastel palette that a paint manufacturer could practically label the Karoo range: the inspirations here may be from Hollywood, but they’re placed, quite literally and transformatively, in a South African light.