"Boesman & Lena" begins with a flurry of black-and-white images thatfirst show people fleeing from their shantytown community, then cut to a mudflat alongside a river somewhere in the countryside outside Cape Town, South Africa, where a ragged-looking couple, among those driven from their makeshift shelters, have taken refuge. That's how the late John Berry begins his film of Athol Fugard's 1969 play, with Danny Glover and Angela Bassett triumphing in the title roles.
Be prepared to allow yourself to get used to this film. Berry decided, wisely it turns out, not to tone down the inherent theatricality of the material. Consequently, that it is shot on location at first seems merely to accentuate the feeling that we're looking at a filmed play.
But, gradually, the power of the material and the stars takes hold, flashbacks begin to flesh out the characters' lives, and "Boesman & Lena" comes alive--achingly and passionately, for time and circumstance have truly caught up with this couple, who have come to a dead end.
The beautiful but worn Lena still has flashes of her former allure and vitality, but grinding tragedy and hardship are dimming her eyesight and confusing her mind. The strong, strapping Boesman, somewhat older than Lena, is verging on a silver-bearded, bitter old age. In time we discover that the couple's life as farmers living in a modest but pleasant home started unraveling with the death of their only child at 6 months. Their downward spiral is barely glimpsed, but their all-consuming loss has left them vulnerable to apartheid's harshest realities.
They are reduced to a life of impermanence, eking out a living collecting bottles--some of which they've clearly emptied themselves--and redeeming them for a pittance. Home is whatever they've been able to cobble together from salvage. And it's because they've been forced to pull up stakes so often that Lena, desperate to give her hard experiences some sort of coherence, struggles to retrace their steps in her mind.
She's not about to get help from the sullen Boesman, who like many profoundly frustrated men through all time, takes out his rage on his wife. What is all too evident is that Boesman and Lena only have each other, but that's precisely what they need to acknowledge if they're to survive.
Out of nowhere emerges a weary, aging Xhosa tribesman (Willie Jonah), whose presence proves pivotal. That he cannot understand a word of English swiftly becomes beside the point to Lena, who's verging on hysteria.
This old man is to bear witness to all her ills, all her perplexities over the human condition and, above all, her grievances against Boesman, who is stunned that she would be willing to give up a bottle of wine simply to sit by the fire with the elderly stranger.
Lena is the showier role, and Bassett certainly catches all of the woman's mercurial mood swings: her sultriness, despair, courage, confusion and pride, drawing us into the sheer pain and injustice of her existence. Glover, in turn, shows us a man made brute, and who first must crumble before rediscovering his humanity.
Bassett and Glover rise to the challenge of these larger-than-life roles, just as you would expect. The strength of "Boesman & Lena" is that it is not merely an indictment of apartheid, but also a depiction of a marriage in which love has waned, regardless of who or what is to blame, and what must happen if there is to be even a possibility of its renewal.
In the end, the simplicity and directness of Berry's approach pay off. Berry, a survivor of the Hollywood blacklist, began his career in the theater and assumed the direction both in New York and on the road for the 1940 stage version of Richard Wright's "Native Son."
Throughout his career, Berry illuminated the lives of blacks in America and in South Africa, and directed Fugard plays in London and New York.
In a very real sense, therefore, his career came full circle with "Boesman & Lena," which he directed onstage in New York in 1970. He died in Paris last November at 82, a few days before completing post-production work on this film, the first version of which was made in 1976, with Fugard himself playing Boesman.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: language, adult themes and situations.
'Boesman & Lena'
Danny Glover: Boesman
Angela Bassett: Lena
Willie Jonah: Old Man
A Kino International release of a Pathe-Primedia Pictures production. Director John Berry. Producers Francois Ivernel and Pierre Rissient. Adapted by Berry from the play by Athol Fugard. Cinematographer Alain Choquart. Editor Claudine Bouche. Music Wally Badarou. Costumes Diana Cilliers. Production designer Max Berto. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
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