It isn’t easy to imagine oneself feeling much sympathy for the characters of a film about the Apartheid-era South African army, upholding their violently racist laws. Perhaps Oliver Hermanus’s greatest achievement with Moffie, then, is that he manages to make you care. Looking at homophobia and brutally toxic masculinity within the ranks, Moffie (an Afrikaans homophobic slur) is powerfully affecting and distressing, but leaves room for hope and beauty.
Having long since learned to repress his true identity, young gay man Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) is conscripted to serve at the Angolan border. A gruelling boot camp forces him to further push down his feelings, but a tentative romance with fellow recruit Dylan Stassen (Ryan de Viliers) starts to let some light into his world.
Brummer and de Viliers give solid performances, and their first night together is both fearful and euphoric, Hermanus melding these tones across the whole film to create a unique tension that is captivating. Often setting scenes at dawn and dusk, Moffie looks beautiful, the base surrounded by stunning scenery that has an unearthly glow in the soft, low light. Though the recruits only fire their guns in the final act, Hermanus stages these war scenes with a thrilling combination of realism and dreaminess, intense firefights giving way to anti-climaxes and emotional turning points.
Backing this is a superb score that never feels bound by the conventions or expectations given to war movie music. It conveys the soldiers’ emotions incredibly effectively without ever being overly insistent that you feel the exact same way.
Set in 1981 but never feeling all that far away from the deeply damaging attitudes still held in male-dominated institutions today, Moffie can be a tough watch, but its glimmers of romance and genuinely moving friendship keep it very worthwhile.
CAST: Kai Luke Brummer, Ryan de Viliers, Hilton Pelser
DIRECTOR: Oliver Hermanus
WRITERS: Oliver Hermanus, Jack Sidey (screenplay), Andre Carl van der Merwe (novel)
SYNOPSIS: Nicholas has long known he is different, that there is something shameful and unacceptable in him that must stay hidden, denied even. But South Africa’s minority government are embroiled in conflict at the Angolian border and all-white young men over 16 must serve two years of compulsory military service to defend the Apartheid regime and its culture of toxic racist machismo.