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VOD Review: Moffie

April 9, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Set in 1981 during South Africa’s apartheid rule, Moffie explores the effects of the country’s compulsory military service through the eyes of a young man discovering his sexuality.

The main character is Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brümmer), a quiet young man who, at the start of the film, is being shipped off to serve two years in the military, which is mandatory for every white boy over the age of sixteen.

The young soldiers are being trained to uphold South Africa’s white minority government and fight against the communist threat at the Angolan border. The fear of the so-called “Black danger” (“die swart gevaar”) is drilled into them, as they are taught to not only fear but also hate Black people.

The majority of the film takes place at a brutal boot camp, where the new recruits are tormented by the cruel Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser), who seems to take pleasure in doling out punishments, including shouting racist and homophobic slurs at them. It’s an environment where any suspicion of homosexuality gets you beaten and sent to the mysterious “ward 22,” where soldiers are treated for “mental illness.” Which is why, when Nicholas sparks a connection with fellow recruit Dylan Stassen (Ryan de Villiers), their encounters are embedded with as much fear as they are the feeling of sexual discovery.

Much of this unfolds in an observational way, the beauty of Jamie Ramsay’s cinematography juxtaposed by the horrific abuse that it captures within its frames. The title of Moffie is taken from the South African translation of a gay slur, which we soon realize through the film’s subtitles when the word starts being shouted at the new recruits as a way to shame them during training. The film shows the demoralizing and dehumanizing behaviour that these young men are forced to endure. We watch as they are beaten and abused in an attempt to beat them into submission, and we see how homophobia is literally baked into this culture, leading to some tragic outcomes.

The film is directed by Oliver Hermanus, and it is based on South African novelist André Carl van der Merwe’s autobiographical novel of the same name, which was adapted from the journals that he kept during his own mandatory military service. In his approach to bringing this popular book to the screen, Hermanus seems inspired by both the work of Terrence Malick and also Stanley Kubrick, namely the latter’s Full Metal Jacket.

By the time the young soldiers finally do see action in the last act, Moffie shifts into feeling like more of a typical war movie and it feels slightly anti-climactic, but maybe that’s the point. While it does, perhaps intentionally, keep us at somewhat of an emotional distance by not fleshing out its supporting characters as much as it could have, the film offers an interesting and unsettling glimpse into this world. Through the experiences of a young soldier, sensitively portrayed by Brümmer, Moffie depicts, often in gruelling detail, both the ugliness of apartheid, and the dangerous effects of institutionalized homophobia.

Moffie is available to rent on AppleTV on April 9th, and will be available this summer on IFC Films Unlimited.

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