In deciding on a title for his 1999 reflection on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Nobel laureate Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu chose No Future without Forgiveness, a reconciliatory sentiment thematically echoed late in Catch a Fire (Focus).
The film is an intelligent, if unevenly compelling, truth-based drama set against the dark days of that country's apartheid policy.
Australian director Phillip Noyce, who demonstrated versatility directing big-budget action films such as Clear and Present Danger as well as smaller dramas including The Quiet American, combines elements of both well here. But from an emotional standpoint — despite a remarkable real-life story, solid cast and Oscar-pedigreed producer Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) and executive producer Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa) — Catch a Fire never ignites.
Derek Luke is husband and father Patrick Chamusso, a foreman at a vital South African oil refinery. When not working, the resolutely apolitical Chamusso coaches a children's soccer team and takes classes at night to better the life of his family.
While on an overnight trip with the team, he sneaks off to visit a woman with whom he fathered a child years earlier, putting him in a difficult position when he is arrested later in connection with a sabotage attack on the refinery that occurred on the same evening. Fearing for his job and marriage, Chamusso, though innocent, remains silent about his alibi, drawing the suspicions of quietly menacing police colonel Nic Vos (Tim Robbins).
In trying to coerce Chamusso into confessing, the authorities arrest and torture his wife, Precious (Bonnie Henna). They are both released, but the injustices spark a fire in him to take action.
Leaving his family behind, he joins the outlawed African National Congress, or ANC, as a rebel fighter in its militant “MK” wing. Using his inside knowledge, he eventually masterminds a plot to blow up the entire plant where he once worked, setting himself on a collision course with Vos.
Luke (Antwone Fisher) continues to establish himself as one of the best young actors today. Robbins, however, is just adequate, turning in a low-key performance that borders on listless, though he manages to humanize Vos beyond a one-dimensional villain. Vos — also shown as a caring family man — doesn't see himself as cruel but believes he is preserving order in his country. (Some historical context would have helped give the story and characters more texture.)
The film's taut pacing is energized by Ron Fortunato's cinematography, which contrasts the oppressive poverty of the shantytown where Chamusso lives with the comfort of the blithely oblivious white communities.
Contentwise there's nothing really objectionable beyond scattered four-letter words and some dramatically justified brutality, but even that is handled with restraint.
Working from a screenplay by South African Shawn Slovo — daughter of Joe Slovo, who headed the MK when Chamusso was a member — Noyce, in exploring themes of race and social justice, raises the timely issue of using violence as a means of political protest. The film's final word on the matter should resonate with Catholic viewers in its renouncing of violence.
A brief, but poignant, epilogue shows the real Chamusso — who served 10 years of a 24-year sentence imprisoned on Robben Island with future South African president Nelson Mandela and now runs an orphanage — advocating forgiveness as imperative in healing his country's deep wounds. That conversion, from vengeful anger to compassion, would have been a far more interesting and inspiring story, but here is treated in footnote fashion.
The film contains some violence, images of torture, an instance of rough language and a few crude expressions. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
(This review appears courtesy of US Conference of Catholic Bishop's Office for Film and Broadcasting.)