Less than 10 minutes into Moffie, we get our first glimpse of the bigotry that will run like a blood-pulsing vein through the rest of the film. It’s 1981 South Africa, and an enormous group of young white men is en route to Middelburg for their required military service. As the train halts at a station to pick up more men, the soldiers-to-be catch sight of a lone black man waiting for a different train. They hurl insults, demands and eventually objects at him for several excruciating moments before the train finally pulls away, leaving the man covered in the boys’ leftovers. The camera pans left as the train pulls away, capturing his expression of discomfort and indignation in a lingering close-up.

The moment is important to the overall project of the film for two key reasons. One, we see that these sixteen-year-old recruits have been thoroughly socialized into intolerance for the Other, varyingly represented by black people, gay people and communists. It will be the objective of their military commanders not to instill this intolerance but to exacerbate and channel it into violence. Two, we see that the film is equally interested in the victims of prejudice and its enforcers, revealing it to be a blistering study of the far-reaching effects of normalized prejudice.

Our protagonist and guide through this study is bashful teen Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brümmer, a Redmayne-cheekboned upstart), already a noticeable outsider due to his British, rather than South African, background. He’s also quite reserved, slow to join in on the hollering and horseplay of the other soldiers. When the training—which consists of mindless exercise after mindless exercise, with a side of slur-hurling—begins upon the train’s arrival in Middelburg, Nick does what he can to blend in by silently following orders to run, jump, strip down, fuck off.

It’s through his unassuming eyes that we see the men begin to bond with one another, mostly in socially acceptable ways like wrestling, singing, sporting, drinking. But when two men are accused of having sex in a bathroom stall, we see, in painful detail, what happens when alliances form in ways deemed unacceptable in this draconian world of discipline and strength: the two soldiers, covered in bruises from an offscreen beating, are publicly chastised and verbally abused. “Moffies!” the rest of the recruits shout again and again, prompted to use the Afrikaans-language gay slur of the title by the promptings of their overseers. Later that night, it’s revealed that the two have been shipped off to Ward 22, described by one soldier as a “loony bin” and later very briefly depicted as a shit-stained chamber of terror. The fate of the called-out soldiers hangs over the rest of the film like a thick fog, even more so as Nick begins to fall for a man in his unit, the taller and more mature Dylan Stassen (Ryan de Villiers).

The film’s director, Oliver Hermanus (also its co-writer with Jack Sidey, together adapting the screenplay from a memoir by André Carl van der Merwe), captures the proceedings with an eye for the picturesque amid the horror. Undoubtedly, Hermanus and his cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay have a talent for capturing human faces in all their chiseled vulnerability. Their close-ups of men at attention (both during military drills and, more broadly, immersed in each situation’s fluctuating power dynamics) imbue the film with a sense of animalistic presence, wherein each micromovement—a clenching of the jaw, a subtle shift of the eyes—is one calculation among many in a destroy-or-be-destroyed environment. The film’s habit of cutting to these close-ups unexpectedly, in the middle of a some otherwise mundane military task, displays a realist painter’s attention to order and nuance.

Special recognition goes to the most beautiful of Moffie’s close-ups, which arrives in the immediate aftermath of Dylan kissing Nick and reveals Nick’s startlement and gradual smile as he works through the romantic gesture’s resulting complications. It’s a wonderfully complex and tender moment, indicative of Nick’s closely surveilled position on the precipice of adulthood as he struggles to express his sexuality in the midst of uniformed repression.

After this scene, the film’s best, Moffie disappointingly diverges from developing the fraught web of relationships it’s worked hard to elaborate up to this point. First, it introduces an over-explanatory, long-take flashback that shows Nick getting into trouble for beginning to explore his youthful curiosity at a public swimming pool. While the scene is believably and frighteningly tense, it comes across as an unnecessary bit of psychologizing, as if this one moment could explain both Nick’s reticence and his fumbling interactions with his father, present, protective, and ashamed during the swimming pool scene. Second, its dramatic, fascinating soundtrack—consisting of Rob Brinkworth’s original score, plus classical pieces from the likes of Vivaldi and Schubert, plus “Summer Breeze”—begins to drift away, perhaps to foreground Nick’s increasing proximity to the violence of South Africa’s conflict with Soviet-supported Angola but at the cost of losing part one’s brooding flair. Third, it pumps the brakes on developing Nick’s links with other soldiers, not only Dylan, who only reemerges in the film’s final scenes, but also Michael Sachs (Matthew Vey), previously Nick’s closest and most intriguing confidant.

Ultimately, Moffie is tale of two different films, the first a study of blossoming interpersonal communication and the second an exercise in increasing solitude. The latter is, in the end, a realistic portrayal of war’s messiness and youth’s loose ends, but it’s hard not to feel that something significant has been left unexplored. We’re left with a powerful impression of Nick’s aloneness, a product of the regime that rejects his very existence, while the story’s compelling context of lived relationships gradually slips away.

A tale of two different films, the first a study of blossoming interpersonal communication and the second an exercise in increasing solitude.
68 %
Chiseled repression

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