Nicholas has long known he is different, that there is something shameful and unacceptable in him that must stay hidden, denied even. But South Africa’s minority government are embroiled in conflict at the Angolan border and all white young men over 16 must serve two years of compulsory military service to defend the Apartheid regime and its culture of toxic racist machismo. The ‘black danger’ is the real and present threat; what is wrong with Nicholas and others like him can be rooted out, treated and cured like a cancer. But just when fear pushes Nicholas to accept unspeakable horrors in the hopes of staying invisible, a tender relationship with another recruit becomes as dangerous for them both as any enemy fire.
As extraordinary and as hauntingly beautiful as Skoonheid (Oliver Hermanus’s second film) was, I could only recommend it to die-hard cinephiles, and still then I included a warning. It all builds up to a crushing scene which traumatised this rather thick-skinned reviewer. It attests to the power of the film. Moffie, even more extraordinary and more hauntingly beautiful than Skoonheid, is not Skoonheid. Everyone should see it. No warning necessary.
The first few frames – in 4:3 format, flawlessly colour-treated and styled, shot on a perfect location – immediately places you in what is unmistakably the 80s, in apartheid South Africa. Everything is beautiful though, from the brooding landscapes, the wind in the grass, the dreamy lighting, to the underwater shots and the young men. The beauty does not, however, lull you into a false sense of safety, because as the cello music builds from a whimper to a scream, you know what lies underneath the water’s surface. You fully understand the threat posed to this gentle boy. So, you wait for it to come tumbling down. Whether it does or not, I will not say.
Along the way, there are brutal scenes of war, anger, toxic masculinity and blind nationalism. There are also tender moments of sharing a sleeping bag, singing “Sugarman” and a desperate wink when words fail. It is these tender moments that make the brutal moments more bearable, but also so much more brutal.
I am leaving this review unfinished, for if I describe the wordless, aching scene between Brand and Nicholas, a scene that represents the brilliance of this film, I will give away too much and spoil it for you. The only other thing I will say, is that Skoonheid dealt with repressing the desire and anger of one man. Moffie deals with repressing and brutalising a whole generation.
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