Cry, the Beloved Country
directed by Darrell James Roodt
Miramax, 1995

Stephen Kumalo could give Job a run for his money. In the course of two cinematic hours, the South African minister loses his brother to politics, his sister to prostitution and his son to the gallows. And yet his faith is reaffirmed. How, we ask, can this be?

Much has changed in South Africa since Alan Paton published his somber, reflective novel Cry, the Beloved Country in 1948, or since Zoltan Korda first filmed it in 1951. Much has changed in the film world, too, where moviemakers no longer need fear being blacklisted for making films that plead for social justice. But one thing hasn't changed: the unwritten rule that says reflective novels rarely work well on the screen.

Cry, the Beloved Country is a case in point.

Director Darrell James Roodt starts with an excellent cast: James Earl Jones as Kumalo, the small-town preacher called to Johannesburg by a letter saying his sister is ill; Richard Harris as James Jarvis, a local planter whose son is inadvertently killed by Kumalo's son, Absolom; and Charles S. Dutton (Get on the Bus) as the Rev. Kumalo's brother, John, who has forsaken the church and the family for race politics in the big city.

Moreover, Roodt makes the most of South Africa's terrifying physical beauty: green sweeps and swirls of mountains, wind-carved valleys and sun-blanched fields.

But a quick flip through the book shows you what Roodt was up against: It's nearly half dialogue and one-fourth reflection. That leaves very little room for action, and though Roodt tries to cut to the chase, there's not much chase to cut to. By the time the Rev. Kumalo arrives in Johannesburg, Absolom (Eric Miyeni) has already confessed to killing Jarvis' son during a botched burglary. Kumalo's sister slips slowly out of the picture and suddenly back into prostitution, and brother John all but disappears the minute Absolom's trial is over.

That leaves little stuff for drama except for a reconciliation between Rev. Kumalo and Jarvis, a bigot who could not understand why his son chose to aid native South Africans in their struggle for racial equality, or why one of them killed him.

But even here Roodt has odds to defy. The Rev. Kumalo is a humble man, a self-effacing man, torn between doubt and despair.

Is this how audiences view James Earl Jones? Hardly -- not after he nearly knocked Luke Skywalker and the rebels out of this universe and the next.

On top of this, Roodt saddles his film with a sentimental musical score that alternately undermines or overplays moments of real drama; and he can't resist an occasional lapse into slow-motion photography, as if he needed to highlight the important passages.

On the whole, Roodt's Cry, the Beloved Country is not a bad film. It sets two old pros face to face, offers us a look at some unforgettable characters and serves as a reminder of an era and a system of injustice that should never be forgotten.

But viewers who haven't read the novel may well wonder what all the fuss was about. And viewers who have may feel shortchanged.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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