Michael Matthews’s first feature film, the Sesotho-language Five Fingers for Marseilles, written by Sean Drummond, has been marketed everywhere with maximum ostentation as South Africa’s very first western, and, reflecting on the experience of watching it, that fact bodes well for the future of South African cinema: Other attempts at the genre have nowhere to go from here but up. The film is a hefty haul of all-too-familiar features that have come to characterise what I think of as our country’s prestige cinema: the movies meant to show off and advance our slowly developing film industry, but that, to me, throw its limits and shortcomings into sharp relief. These features include an ostensibly detailed attention to quality photography, a plot thrown together from local television and international blockbuster clichés, an elision of personal and idiosyncratic style for the sake of specious substance, dialogue of the most hackneyed and unimaginative variety (in whatever language is chosen), a conspicuous absence of directorial presence or artistic personae, a dismayingly narrowed and uniformly professional attitude to performance, a totally conventional notion of drama, a view of character and method of drawing characters that is both blunt and shallow, and the lack of detailed attention to milieu or specific setting.
Read others’ reviews of Five Fingers for Marseilles here.
The weak drama unfolds the plot doggedly, without accumulating details or views of anything on show, whether the setting, the characters, the broad contexts of the story, or the ideas meant to be introduced to it. Does it matter which small town was chosen as the location of the fictitious Marseilles? Would it have been any different if it had been filmed at any one of the many dozens of other small towns surrounded by dry landscapes across the country? Is there anything at all that this specific location offered to the filmmakers’ vision? If so, it isn’t to be seen in their film. If not, should it not then be used to springboard more general ideas about the country at large? I didn’t come across these, either. The script introduces elements without developing them any further than the first subordinating conjunction of a basic character sketch or plot synopsis, without tightening the emotional tensions of the film, and without mapping out a perspective or context for it. Avoiding spoilers, the resolution of the drama renders pretty much all of what came before inconsequential and insignificant. It wastes the resources of a hard-working cast of dedicated actors, who fixed their grim facial expressions in place for the entirety of the shoot, as well as the location scouts who went to great lengths to find the appropriately harsh and windswept natural settings.