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Review: South African western 'Five Fingers for Marseilles' is both familiar and original

Review: South African western 'Five Fingers for Marseilles' is both familiar and original
Vuyo Dabula, left, and Lizwi Vilakazi in the movie "Five Fingers for Marseilles." (Graham Bartholomew / Uncork'd Entertainment)

A methodical neo-western set in modern-day South Africa, “Five Fingers for Marseilles” crackles with energy as it wends its way toward an explosive conclusion. A brutal but thoughtful film invoking subtle social allegory, “Marseilles” demonstrates both the durability and elasticity of the genre.

The film, written by Sean Drummond and directed by Michael Matthews, opens when apartheid is in its final throes, though freedom is a long way from Marseilles, a dusty railroad town on a downward spiral. Blacks live in their own area called Railway under the controlling heel of the corrupt white police. A quintet of teens, bristling at this, vow to fight the injustice.

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A deadly incident with the police leads Tau, the toughest of the five, to flee, leading to a life of crime and earning him the moniker the Lion of Marseilles. Twenty years later, following a prison stint, Tau (a terrific Vuyo Dabula) returns to town. Things have changed, blacks are now in charge, but corruption and injustice still reign. The friends have splintered, Tau finds himself unwelcome, and a flamboyant gangster called Sepoko (Hamilton Dhlamini) tightens his grip on the town.

The ending is both shocking and inevitable. Drummond and Matthews honor the western traditions, classic, spaghetti and revisionist, while creating something stylishly original steeped in the seldom-seen rural and tribal cultures of South Africa.

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‘Five Fingers for Marseilles’

In Sesotho, English, Afrikaans and Xhosa with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours

Playing: Starts Sept. 14, Laemmle Glendale

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