CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY (South Africa, 1995) *** 1/2
"Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if his gives too much. Yes cry, cry, the beloved country."
Change a word or two and this text can apply today to several countries.
Even for people familiar with world literature, their first acquaintance with a South African novel was "Cry, the Beloved Country," by Alan Paton (1903-1988), a white who had been principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory since 1935.
The film (released in 1995) has adapted the beautiful, sad, poetic book with maximum fidelity, including descriptions, dialogue and voice-over narration. It relates events in 1946. Stephen Kumalo, a Zulu pastor (James Earl Jones), leaves his rural area for his first trip to Johannesburg. With the sum total od his money, a paltry 14 pounds 6, and with dogged determination, he is looking for his sister and for his son. "My son, Absalom" echoes both the Bible and William Faulkner.
He finds the woman. She had become a prostitute of the saddest sort -- not from greed but by necessity. He rescues her and her child. Then he eventually locates Absalom -- in prison. The young man had fallen in bad company and had a penal record. During an attempted burglary, with two companions, Absalom, panicking when the white occupant returned, shot him fatally.
By coincidence, the victim, Arthur, was the only child of a landowner from Kumalo's area, James Jarvis (Richard Harris). There is no doubt that Absalom, as he stated to his father and the Court, fired unthinkingly because he was frightened. While no excuse in the eyes of the law, this is a terrible indictment of a society of separate and unequal races, where, in the dominated group, "Fear Eats the Soul," to quote the title of a Fassbinder film.
Ironically, Arthur was a liberal and the creator of a black center (the Claremont Boys Club). Says a club official to James: "He gave us all of this," and adds: " He is the only man, black or white, to see me as I am."
Among Arthur's writings, James reads: "It is not native crime which is the problem, but white crime..." James, not shown as a bigot, is, like so many others, guilty by ommission and ignorance. He learns from tragedy. During a sleepless night, he tells his wife: " There was something Arthur wrote, that day that he... He said we taught him nothing. He means that we taught him nothing about the country in which he lived. He said that we called ourselves Christians, but we were indifferent to the suffering of Christians. He said that when we say we are Christians, what we mean is that we are white.... Oh, why... Why, why, why, why do we bring children into this world?"
In ways too delicate and complex to detail or reveal here, the two distraught fathers meet. Jarvis, unaware of who the anonymous visitor is ( Kumalo almost collapses from emotion), treats him kindly. Then the preacher, with immense pain declares: "It was my son that killed your son." Jarvis, still gentle: "I understand what I did not understand. There is no anger in me." They part with "Go well, umfundisi" (a respectful expression for "pastor") and "Stay well umnumzana" ("sir"). The sequence is heartbreaking, the actors superb, both tens on a scale of 1 to 10.
James Earl Jones has an enormous presence, all the stronger for his contained agony. Richard Harris, in his most underplayed, quiet role ever, is also a paragon of moving, unrhetorical, unshowy reactions. The strange but believable bond between the two men is reinforced in the scenes that follow.
I confess that I was a bit worried at the start of the movie, first because the music by James Barry sounded like a clone of his score for "Out of Africa," secondly because the trek of the Rev. Kumalo to Johannesburg, where he gets scammed and robbed on arrival, might overdevelop the aspect of a rube in a big city. But neither musical nor plot cliches appear. Instead, we get a series of events that go from touching to moving to devastating, both for the characters and the audience. The poignancy is cumulative, impossible to resist. It lasts to the very end when the preacher goes up to the mountain, with more Biblical echoes, not to mention Martin Luther King.
There is true emotion, dignity and nobility in this film, yet none that you might suspect of pulling out all the stops in order to influence the audience. There is also, in the eyes of many critics, a great deal of true Christianity, but in my opinion the story transcends Christianity, Judaism, ancestor worship or totemism, reaching instead deep levels of humanity that cut across religions or non-faiths.
Not everything is obvious. Neither the police nor the prosecutor or the judge are made into racist villains. During Absalom's trial, whenever Arthur Jarvis is mentioned, it is not by name, but as "the white man." This speaks volumes. So does the richness of the film in major elements ( like the kindness and help shown Kumalo by a white Bishop and a black, complex clergyman), small touches (impasses for blacks, the hostility of the bordello's madam), integrated incidentals (a bus boycott that forces the two preachers to walk 11 miles), and much else.
By Hollywood standards, this is an Un-American movie, I mean one that takes its time with feelings, reflections and reactions. Yet slow it isn't. The running time is listed variously as 108 and as 120 minutes. It is quite possible that after its initial screening the film was cut, but even in that case, no harm was done. It still plays like a Greek tragedy for our time. Not to be missed.