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Five Fingers for Marseilles

Good meets evil in this atmospheric Western set in modern-day South Africa.

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FIVE FINGERS FOR MARSEILLES might be one of the world’s first South African Westerns. Incongruous as that may sound, everything from the stark beauty of its setting to the country’s history, which classified resistance to Apartheid as an outlaw movement, meshes perfectly with the genre. Set in the rocky, windswept highlands on the Lesotho border, FIVE FINGERS begins with a sort of creation myth: first there were trains, then settlers, then towns named after distant lands (Rome, Barcelona, and in this case, Marseilles). The native residents are cast into the wilderness, forcibly moved to a shanty town called Railway in the hills above Marseilles.

Against this backdrop, a group of young friends calling themselves the Five Fingers bands together to defend Railway from corrupt white policemen. They create a collective mythology around their cause, giving themselves nicknames like Lion and Priest, building a hideout in the hills, carving badges out of wood, riding bicycles and firing slingshots in place of horses and guns, and revelling in youthful idealism. Things ultimately go awry when they attempt to rescue a friend, and Tau (AKA “Lion”) is forced to flee.

20 years later, life has not been kind to Tau: newly released from prison, he wanders back to post-apartheid Marseilles as the prodigal son, calling himself “nobody” when anyone asks. The Marseilles to which he returns has grown into a small city, and faces a new scourge of corruption and graft. While the transition from an idealized, noble past to a fallen present holds a great deal of promise, particularly for a Western, the film exercises tremendous restraint with these themes, to the point that it threatens to become a standard drama before it really gets started.

Thankfully, the action picks up with the appearance of a fearsome gangster named Sepoko (AKA “The Ghost”, played by the fantastic Hamilton Dlamini). His fire-and-brimstone proselytizing on good and evil, salvation and judgment, and other dichotomies is written plainly on his face in the form of one white and one black eye, and his smoky, menacing presence gives the film a welcome sense of urgency. His scenes go a long way toward offsetting the brooding tone of the latter part of the film; with such understated storytelling, it’s nice to have some good old-fashioned villainy.

Visually, the film is beautiful: in addition to the dramatic scenery of windswept bluffs and prairies, the costumes convey a timeless Western sensibility without looking out of place in a modern setting. Several of the set pieces – in particular the town bar in Railway and the Fingers’ former mountain hideout – serve both the genre conventions of a Western and the localized South African setting beautifully, and feel totally authentic in both regards.

As a broader framework in which its Western tropes can play out, the plot serves its purpose, even when the pacing flags. Most absent is a fuller development of the major characters; each seems to exist mainly as an archetype, and we’re left to trace their narrative arcs from idealized childhood to fallen adulthood on our own. Still, Five Fingers for Marseilles is a smart, well-acted, and often beautiful film, which stands as a strong addition to the canon of worldwide Westerns.

John Peck

Credits

Original title: Five Fingers for Marseilles
Südafrika 2017, 120 min
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Western
Director: Michael Matthews
Author: Sean Drummond
DOP: Shaun Lee
Montage: Daniel Mitchell
Music: James Matthes
Distributor: Drop-out Cinema
Cast: Zethu Dlomo, Anthony Oseyemi, Kenneth Fok, Warren Masemola
FSK: 12
Release: 27.06.2019

Website
IMDB

Screenings

Screenings

  • OV Original version
  • OmU Original with German subtitles
  • OmeU Original with English subtitles

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