The vicious racism of Apartheid is eloquently equated with the shame, humiliation and psychological violence of institutionalized homophobia in Moffie, a powerful drama set in 1981 South Africa, when homosexuality was still a punishable crime. Director Oliver Hermanus returns to Venice and to top form after the visually stunning but narratively muddled genre exercise of his 2015 competition entry, The Endless River. His new film feels intensely personal in its intimate observation of a closeted gay military conscript, played with mesmerizing internalized anxiety by Kai Luke Brummer. It’s often tough to watch, but that harshness is mitigated by moments of aching tenderness and desire.
Based on the autobiographical novel by Andre Carl van der Merwe, the film takes its title from a common Afrikaans anti-gay slur. Its unflinching depiction of intolerance fanned by the diseased ideology of white supremacy will make the drama of interest to international LGBTQ audiences and beyond.
That word, “moffie,” is hurled often, most distressingly when a full platoon of young soldiers going through a hellish months-long boot camp is ordered to shout the insult repeatedly at a pair of conscripts singled out to be made an example of after apparently being caught having sex. Their training commander, the sadistic Afrikaner Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser), reminds the assembled troop with lofty contempt that homosexuality is a crime against God and country. Compounding the brutality of the ordeal are the rumors of a possibly even worse fate in Ward 22, the psych facility where offenders reportedly are drugged to the gills and stuck in among the clinically insane.
The film opens with an arresting wide shot of a car’s high-beam headlights piercing the darkness of a vast, empty landscape at night, before dropping in on the send-off party for 18-year-old Nicholas Van der Swart (Brummer), who’s heading for two years of compulsory military service. He will be sent to the southern border with Angola to fight in the containment campaign against Soviet expansionism, which has been sold to the public using anti-communist rhetoric. But for most of his fellow conscripts the objective is to defend the Apartheid regime against the so-called “swart gevaar” or “black danger.”
Nick’s stepfather is gung-ho about the adventure that awaits him while his mother seems more anxious and his biological father slips him a heterosexual porn magazine, cryptically suggesting he’ll need it as “ammunition.” The fretful strings of Braam du Toit’s score scarcely hint at the nightmare to come.
The train journey — masterfully captured by cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay, with snaking drone shots juxtaposed against the claustrophobic cauldron of testosterone inside — gives Nick his first taste of the volatile situation into which he’s stepping. He’s already an outsider by virtue of his English education, but he gets lucky in forming a bond with a mellow cabin companion, Michael Sachs (Matthew Vey), seemingly impervious to the mob mentality of the noisy, drunken throng elsewhere on the train. Their collective abuse of a well-dressed black traveler on the platform of a station they pass through again serves as a portent of more violent inhumanity down the track.
Nothing can quite prepare Nick (or the audience) for the trauma awaiting them at their destination, however, where the verbal humiliation starts the minute they step off the train into a chaotic din of barked orders. The bullying hard-ass Brand sets out to make their time there “unbearable,” carrying out a sustained physical and psychological assault to break them down in order to toughen them up, and singling out the weaker elements for special cruelty.
Hermanus shows the end result of this for one unfortunate conscript as a short, sharp shock during an otherwise relaxed interlude rippling with homoerotic undercurrents, while the shirtless guys are playing volleyball in the sun before a weekend furlough.
An incident that plays on Nick’s mind for the duration of his service and on into his return to civilian life occurs during a grueling exercise in which Brand has the platoon digging trenches and then remaining in them overnight through a heavy downpour. Nick is paired with Dylan Stassen (Ryan de Villiers), who urges him to huddle together under their one dry blanket. The physical attraction between them stops at a gentle caress of Stassen’s hand on Nick’s face, but the sexual and emotional hunger resonates.
The ways in which the macho environment is designed to crush such feeling are conveyed as much by intimation as by action in the screenplay by Hermanus and Jack Sidey. Stassen’s abrupt removal from the camp leaves Nick with unanswered questions and unsatisfied longings. Later, when one visibly damaged platoon member returns from Ward 22, Nick begs him for information. While Nick remains at least outwardly in denial about his homosexuality, the other soldier advises him: “Do whatever you can to stay invisible.”
Nick’s isolation is suggested in one particularly evocative image of him swimming — or perhaps drowning — in bloodied water. That ties visually into an extended flashback to his scarring preteen experience at a country club swimming pool, where the abundance of barely clad male flesh on display has a hypnotic effect on him. When he’s caught unconsciously gazing at a man in the showers, the explosive reaction of an angry witness and the disgrace in front of Nick’s parents scalds the boy’s psyche in ways that still haunt the young man.
The latter part of the film covering the transition from training to the harrowing combat of the border tour tends first to meander and then feel a little rushed, sacrificing some of the fluidity and focus of the establishing sections. Scenes drift between male sensuality that appears to reference Claire Denis’ Beau Travail and cold-sweat terror out of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Both modes are effective, played with a raw tangle of violence and violation by the talented young ensemble. But a slight repetitive feel creeps in, despite inventive use of music.
What keeps it gripping is the underlying dread of exposure for Nick, present in every moment of suppressed fear and contained intensity in Brummer’s strong performance. The dual depiction of a young man still in his formative years, keeping his head down and his emotions guarded while remaining alert to the more physical dangers of landmines and snipers makes for unsettling viewing. Hermanus wraps up the drama with an exquisite open-ended coda of lingering melancholy that hints at the resilience of Nick and other soldiers like him, as well as the sobering price they pay.
Production companies: Portobello Film, in association with Penzance Films
Distribution: IFC Films
Cast: Kai Luke Brummer, Ryan de Villiers, Matthew Vey, Stefan Vermaak, Hilton Pelser, Wynand Ferreira, Rikus Terblanche, Shaun Chad Smit, Hendrick Nieuwoudt
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Screenwriters: Oliver Hermanus, Jack Sidey, adapted from the book by Andre Carl van der Merwe
Producers: Eric Abraham, Jack Sidey
Director of photography: Jamie D. Ramsay
Production designer: Franz Lewis
Costume designer: Reza Levy
Music: Braam du Toit
Editors: Alain Dessauvage, George Hanmer
Casting: Jaci Cheiman
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Horizons)
Sales: Portobello Film Sales
In Afrikaans, English