November 2, 2006

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Catch a Fire (PG-13)
A previously apolitical man finds himself drawn into the fight against apartheid in South Africa in Catch a Fire.

Despite the horribly unfair circumstances of his life as a black man in a violently segregated country, Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) is fairly happy-go-lucky. He loves his wife Precious (Bonnie Henna). He loves his two girls. He even sort of loves his job at the local power plant, in that it allows him to have a few “luxuries” like a car, a nicer-than-average house and, his wife hopes, perhaps even a sofa set.

And he really loves coaching the neighborhood boys at soccer. Who can blame him, really, for calling sick to work when his team wins a tournament game and goes into the finals? Perhaps he doesn’t seem like quite a saint when he takes the opportunity of a night away from the family to go see a onetime girlfriend who is the mother of his illegitimate son. But still, he’s clearly more of a good guy than a bad guy.

We know this and his wife knows this and his neighbors know this. But when a bomb is set off at his power plant (on the day he calls in sick), he is quickly hauled in for violent questioning by Nic Vos (Tom Robbins). And, because of the ex-girlfriend and illegitimate kid, Patrick lies at first. He even lies after he is tortured. Only when the investigators seem to threaten his family does Patrick tell them the truth and by then they don’t believe him.

Eventually, Precious is arrested and tortured, causing Patrick to falsely confess. Luckily, he confesses with details that don’t jibe with evidence and Nic Vos lets him go.

Patrick finds, however, that he can not sink back into his life. He is too traumatized, his wife is too traumatized. Their marriage, shaky from his infidelity before this, seems permanently broken. As we hear him say in the trailer, Patrick decides that if the government can so destroy his life for nothing, he will make it be for something. He leaves home behind and heads over the border to join up with freedom fighters.

Or, depending on how you look at it, terrorists. The movie very smartly makes a point of calling Patrick and all other apartheid insurgents “terrorists.” Draw your own conclusions about what the movie might be saying about current events. But this kind of language demonstrates a certain amount of desperation in the ruling government. They are greatly outnumbered and working hard to keep most of the population down. We see Vos’ wife and children enjoying their white privileges — lovely parks, a serene neighborhood — but they are a jittery bunch. He teaches them how to shoot, an exercise that freaks one daughter out in a fundamental way. When they are later victims of a crime, we feel sympathy for the children but there is a sense that Vos should not have expected anything else in response to his ruthlessness against others.

Luke and Robbins give us strong performances that turn what could have been clichés — apartheid victim, law enforcement brute — into frighteningly recognizable people. Particularly impressive is how Luke is able to perfectly mesh Patrick’s natural sunniness with the violent cause he feels he must pick up. He has us believing that, indeed, his response is not an aberration but a reasonable result of his experiences. B+

Catch a Fire is a tight, engaging movie that makes what could seem like dusty history feel like a fresh horror. Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving torture and abuse and for violence and some language and because the 1994 was a while back and you’ll have to explain the ugly truth of apartheid to younger people. Directed by Phillip Noyce and written by Shawn Slovo, Catch a Fire is an hour and 41 minutes long and is distributed by Focus Features in wide release.

— Amy Diaz