Moffie review – gripping portrait of lost innocence

A young gay soldier experiences a sexual awakening in this raw and compelling drama set in apartheid-era South Africa

As long as there are people growing up, there will be coming-of-age movies. Yet what today looks like a resurgence of this kind of cinema is, in fact, only a continuation of what The 400 Blows set out to do more than 50 years ago. But if the most popular examples of this genre tend to be of the uplifting and “universal” kind, intended to make audiences feel nostalgic for their own youth, the more interesting films remind us that becoming an adult can be a very private and complex experience, during which one’s entire world seems to conspire against the innocence of childhood.

In Oliver Hermanus’ Moffie, Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) is pushed to grow by a number of forces. In 1981 South Africa, 16-year-old white citizens are recruited by the army to help impose apartheid in a violently divided country. As Nicholas finds himself on a train to an intense 2-year camp, Hermanus and cinematographer Jamie Ramsay frame the open spaces that these young men see from their window as terrifyingly empty, subtly suggesting that unpredictable danger could arrive from any direction – and at any moment.

Far from his family, thrown into the unknown of the military, of his country’s future and of his role in it, Nicholas, like his new colleagues, is treated like cattle by instructor Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pesler), battered into performance in order to eventually be sent to his potential death. Political unrest, class disparity and gendered expectations of physical prowess are all coming down on Nicholas at once, and the only way for him to survive is to obey authority.

Hermanus doesn’t spare the audience in his depiction of Sergeant Brand’s cruel command. The point of this authenticity isn’t cheap shock, however, but a more complete and visceral understanding of the reality of this abuse. Moffie is a deeply unpleasant watch because it is honest about the horror of racial discrimination and how it propagates, through group dynamics – on the train, some kids take great pleasure in harassing a black man on a platform – and an institutionalised use of force. The most conservative understanding of masculinity is championed – no sign of weakness (or, really, any emotion) is tolerated – and weaponised for the interests of a racist government. These perpetrators of violence are brutally forced to become such, their protests silenced and their natural animosity encouraged.

This raw approach to the stifling of human emotion makes evident the feelings that cannot be tamed. Nicholas almost succeeds at disappearing into his part, but another man in the camp troubles him. Like Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, Moffie highlights the discrepancy between the army’s cult of the powerful male body, and its resistance to the eroticisation of that form. A scene of outdoor sports inevitably recalls Top Gun, but the looks and words exchanged between Nicholas and this other recruit are here much more understated and evocative. In a world where virile friendliness is the only available language, forbidden emotions appear blurry.

Nicholas’s experience of the camp’s regime of physical and psychological brutalisation, in complete contrast with his burgeoning feelings for a man, remind him of another time in his life where these two sensations were present, albeit in different forms. Hermanus extends the coming-of-age film far beyond its typically restricted borders of a high school year or crazy weekend. He understands that one’s identity is not only a negotiation with one’s current circumstances, but also a perpetual one.

Nicholas’s journey into the forbidden and towards himself started long ago, and the storm of puberty alone may not be enough to make him come into his own. Elegant and immersive flashbacks take us to a different kind of camp, where Nicholas spends a childhood summer day swimming with his parents and a crowd. A traumatic event occurs, which we experience through the child’s terrorised eyes. The parallels with Nicholas’s current situation are hard to miss because, years after this accident at the public pool, the same pressures still exist to threaten him. Hermanus manages to create coherence from all the different, sometimes contradictory aspects of Nicholas’s existence, revealing how a person continues to reassess their life and their self as they carry on living and encountering new challenges and possibilities.

Moffie mostly succeeds at striking a balance between contemplation and suspense, even if it occasionally pinches too much on the spectator’s nerves. At the camp, Nicholas himself is reduced to passivity as simply another cog in the wheel, but he can’t avoid being affected, as he did as a child, by the violence he endures. Hermanus patiently observes his protagonist as he finds his way through his memories, scars and intuitions, and Moffie achieves, paradoxically and effectively, a unique kind of universality. While telling a fragment of Nicholas’s story, it reminds us perhaps not so much of our childhood, but rather of how, despite society’s limitations and the obstacle of our own history, we unavoidably always strive to discover who we are.

Moffie is available to rent on Curzon Home Cinema from April 24.

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