The transformation of an apolitical man to a committed activist as a result of official oppression is the subject of Philip Noyce’s “Catch a Fire.” It’s certainly an uplifting theme, and the fact that the narrative is based on an actual figure gives it added power. But the fact that it’s told in the context of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and thus is effectively a period piece in terms of that country’s current politics, is a weakness; similar subjects have been treated so often by now that, sad to say, the story, though an important one, lacks historical urgency. And to make matters more problematic, it depicts the protagonist’s conversion to the military wing of the African National Congress, which–however positively as it’s portrayed (as it is here)–was still an avowedly Marxist group that employed violence as a means to liberation. (The attempt to avoid the loss of life in its use of force, also emphasized here, doesn’t entirely solve the difficulty.)
What the film does have going for it is Noyce’s committed direction–his embrace of substantive themes in “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” “The Quiet American” and now this project has clearly reinvigorated him following a succession of big but bland Hollywood blockbusters–and an exceptionally refined and sensitive performance by Derek Luke, who portrays Patrick Chamusso, a loving husband and father who’d emigrated to South Africa from Mozambique and eventually worked his way up to a responsible mid-level position at an important Johannesburg oil refinery. A bombing there in 1980 led to his arrest as a suspect, although there was no evidence against him, and to his brutal interrogation by the government’s intelligence service–a treatment so harsh (involving mistreatment of his wife in an attempt to coerce a confession) that it led him to cross the border into Mozambique after his release and join the ANC training camp. Eventually he was selected to return to Johannesburg the following year to detonate a bomb in his old plant. Captured shortly afterward, he was tortured again before being convicted of terrorism and serving nearly ten years at an island prison before being released, along with all political prisoners including Nelson Mandela, at the end of apartheid–an event which involved the disbanding of the ANC military wing and eventually led to the election of Mandela as president and the establishment of the South African amnesty program, which has allowed the peaceful development of the nation into a true majority democracy.
Luke’s portrayal of Chamusso, restrained and moving, is the film’s driving force and greatest asset. He’s not quite matched by Tim Robbins as his chief interrogator, a figure called Nic Vos. It’s certainly good that the script by Shawn Slovo (daughter of Joe Slovo, the head of the ANC’s military wing in the 1980s), presents Vos as an ambiguous figure, almost idealistic in his desire to protect his country (and family) against terrorism and no mindless brute, but also willing to resort to torture when it seems necessary. But the attempt to make him a complex and rounded person muddies the dramatic waters somewhat, and while Robbins tries hard, he never seems to get a handle on the character. The rest of the cast is truly supporting–this is fundamentally a two-character piece–but Bonnie Henna cuts a memorable figure as Patrick’s wife Precious, though her screen time is quite limited. Even if “Catch a Fire” is hardly a major production budget-wise, it’s technically solid, with Ron Fortunato and Garry Phillips using the African locations to good effect.
“Catch a Fire” is moderately moving but not truly shattering, as you might expect of a film with this theme; it elicits interest rather than anger. That’s partially the result of the general familiarity of its subject and the political changes that have occurred since the events it describes. But it’s also the result of the treatment, which is more efficient than really bracing. Its impact can be enhanced by transposing its lessons to contemporary events, but that fact only emphasizes that, despite the intensity of the action, its impact is more intellectual than visceral. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing, only that it doesn’t pack as powerful a punch as its makers might have hoped.