Dir: Jean Stewart. South Africa. 2001. 111mins.
This attempt to create a simple triumph-against-adversity story, set against the world of long distance running in post-apartheid South Africa, has many good elements including a stand-out performance from Armin Mueller-Stahl and picaresque camerawork by British lenser Cinders Forshaw. However, the script fails to exploit its inherent dramatic possibilities, as well as being hampered by clumsy direction. Box office in South Africa reflects these problems as the film only managed to gross less than $50,000 (400,000 SA rand) on 16 prints in a three-week run that was severely curtailed.
Bertold 'Berry' Bohmer (Stahl), a German widower in his 60s, has been living in South Africa coaching black runners for the gruelling 56-mile Comrades Marathon for three decades; he himself hoped to win it in his youth but was never successful. When he is replaced by a younger, flashier black man Gasa (Paterson Joseph), Bertold feels his life has lost all resonance. His depression ends when he sees a young Namibian woman Christine (Nthati Moshesh), an illegal immigrant, doing her morning runs and believes she has the grit to go the distance. Bertold then comes to her rescue when she is arrested by police and immediately moves her into his house.
However, Bertold's obsessive style soon annoys Christine and she rebels against his blinkered passion, and starts training with Gasa; Berry, for his part, destroys all the meticulous files of her development as well as his own mementos of his life in athletics. The film closes with Christine, persuaded by some of Berry's former runners to return to the fold, taking on the race itself. The film, to its credit, avoids any romantic subplot about the race: the two leads share a chaste kiss, which is more about mutual respect than anything else. Equally it steers clear of the pitfalls of euphemistic soap-opera, subtly integrating the socio-political themes of post-apartheid South Africa into the overall scheme, as well as touching on illegal immigrants, the old-time racism that still exists and the rise of a new black middle-class.
Despite screenwriter Johann Potgieter treading carefully around issues that could have turned it into a soapbox piece, there's little tension in the film. Too often minor plot devices are set up and then left to stagnate, leaving the audience with the impression of a film in which the plot has been short-circuited. Stahl delivers an effortless performance as the amiable but irritatingly single-minded older man; but Moshesh is less successful, mainly because her character is so underdeveloped;.
The film has been heavily cut and re-cut, which is a sign of Stewart's sloppy realisation: she has achieved fame as a director of the UK's TV's Cracker series, but has no feel for the kind of big, emotional films that producer Anant Singh excels at (Cry the Beloved) and seems lost here. If Singh had chosen a genuine South African director, this well-meaning drama could've gone the distance on the big screen, but its pedestrian shape makes its suitable for cable, television and video.
Prod co: Distant Horizon
Int'l sales: Universal Focus
Prods: Anant Singh, Helena Spring
Exec Prods: Suhir Pragjee, Sanjeev Singh, Thomas Baer
Scr: Johann Potgieter
Cinematography: Cinders Forshaw
Prod des: Jon-Jon Lambon
Ed: Avril Beukes
Music: Trevor Jones
Main Cast: Armin Mueller-Stahl, Nthati Moshesh, Paterson Joseph, Seputla Sebogodi, Desmond Dube, Wilson Dunster, Elize Cawood, Anna-Mart Van Der Merwe