I was luckily born too late to experience or be conscious of the true, debilitating horrors of the Apartheid regime. However, I grew up in what you might very well consider the wrong side of the tracks (not that we had any tracks, probably because somebody had stolen them), so I know all about the legacy of crime and drugs that has seeped into the very bones and sinew of the Cape Flats. And it’s both these unfortunate millstones hung around the neck of our nation, that director Jerome Salle highlights so starkly in City of Violence, a grim and moving meditation on forgiveness and justice.
Police detective Ali Sokhela (Forrest Whittaker), a joyless workaholic loner, is a proud Zulu, violently displaced to the Western Cape as a child after barely surviving the nightmare political unrest of the late 1970’s in Kwazulu Natal. His younger partner Brian Epkeen (Orlando Bloom) is the product of an English mother and a racist Afrikaner father he cannot forgive. Not that Brian’s much of a father himself, ignoring his paternal duties to his son David as he self-destructs on a nightly basis, curled up with a bottle, a babe or both. But as different as the two men are, they work well together, mostly balanced out by the third member of their investigative unit, Dan Fletcher (Conrad Kemp), a loving family man who cares for his sickly wife Claire (Tinarie van Wyk Loots) and who keeps Ali and Brian’s polarizing views and methods in check.
When the team is called in to investigate the discovery of a dead body in the Kirstenbosch Gardens, they suddenly find their whole existence changed though, some in horrific ways. The body is that of an upper class young girl, gruesomely beaten to death. What’s most alarming though – and most juicy for the media frenzy that follows – is that she was apparently involved with drugs, specifically tik, a substance that is rife in the poorer, gang ridden areas of the Cape, but certainly not something you would expect to find on the daughter of wealthy, white, ex-Springbok rugby player.
Unfortunately, for Ali and Brian, this first body is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and much like that most famous mountainous block of ice, this one leads to a titanic shock that forces both men to question their very souls.
As Ali and Brian, Whittaker and Bloom – the only foreign actors in the cast – do fantastic work. And yes, before you ask, they actually have nailed down that ever elusive South African accent. Whittaker in particular does an incredible job of it, not just sounding South African, but sounding exactly like you would expect a Zulu from KZN to sound, complete with all the little idiosyncrasies of pronunciation. But accents aside, both men turn in layered, powerfully arresting performances. Whittaker’s Ali is a true tragic figure whose past has scarred him outside and in, and who permanently carries that legacy of pain with him in the hunch of his shoulders and the sorrow in his eye. While Bloom, turning in arguably the best performance of his career, is far removed from his days adorning the bedroom walls of teenage girls, and here transforms what could be a clichéd character into one of true vicissitude.
Although there are a few thespian fumbles here and there, these two Hollywood superstars are bolstered by a solid local supporting cast, featuring such screen veterans as Regardt Van Den Bergh, Denise Newman and more. Special mention has to be made though of Randal Majiet as Cat, the fearsome gang leader involved in the murder. Majiet puts in a scarily quiet performance, all whispered threats and hushed violence, that is all the more spine-chilling for being so understated. What’s most impressive about this achievement is that Majiet is not a trained actor. He is in fact an ex-gangster himself who was still in rehab at the time of filming. He would literally leave rehab just to be driven to set to shoot his scenes, before being driven back at the end of the day.
You might probably be asking why director Jerome Salle didn’t just bother getting an established actor who didn’t come with all this baggage, but frankly it’s that baggage that ups the ante. For a French director best known for making a series of hijinks crime capers, Salle turns in one of the most authentically gritty South African crime films I’ve ever seen. There are very distinct speech inflections and mannerisms that permeates these denizens of South Africa’s criminal underbelly and which is incredibly hard to fake, and Salle just nails it.
Although cinematographer Denis Rouden’s lens captures some starkly beautiful vistas, Salle never tries to romanticize this side of our country nor play it up for gags, and he never flinches away from its more monstrous aspects. This is a shockingly violent film – and by that I don’t mean that it’s a Tarantino-esque tsunami of crimson, but rather that when blood and viscera is spilled here, it comes with a heavy emotional price tag.
That high emotional cost is something that is omnipresent throughout the screenplay, adapted by Salle and frequent co-writer Julienne Rappeneau from Caryl Ferey’s novel Zulu. With Whittaker and Bloom as his scalpels, Salle dissects the heavy, beating heart of the post-Apartheid South Africa, exposing some ugly realities but also some glinting possibilities of hope. It delves deep into themes of justice and vengeance, of fatherhood and manhood, of how the crimes of our past has wrought so many of the shackles of today, but also of how we can break free of all that. From the film’s nightmare-scenario opening to its surrealist ending, there’s also a much appreciated cyclical nature to its narrative. That doesn’t mean that everything gets neatly wrapped up at the end though, for there are no easy answers here.
Salle and co may occasionally stumble – the film sometimes feels very gratuitous with its female nudity, one or two characters come across as rotten clichés, and anybody familiar with the workings of local police will occasionally find the heightened Hollywood forensics on display laughable – but they deliver a tour de force human drama wrapped around a gripping, spiraling crime story. Just like a true South African metropolis, City of Violence is a melting pot of ideas and characters, and one that’s made all the richer for it.
Last Updated: October 10, 2014