CATCH A FIRE is a timely consideration of what drives human beings to extremes. Based on a true story of South Africa’s time under apartheid, it shows one man radicalized from passivity to activism to armed resistance with the same dizzy speed that his illusion of security is shattered. The time is 1980 and the man is Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), who at the start is one of the relatively lucky ones, if a second-class citizen can be lucky. A black man with a good job at the local oil refinery, a comfortable family life with a wife he adores (Bonnie Henna), and a vocation as a soccer coach for the township kids. He thinks he’s found the perfect way to negotiate the system, even if it brings the occasional warrentless search, or being forced by expediency to call one of his friends the South African equivalent of the “n” word in order to keep peace. And his job.
When the oil refinery where he works is attacked by a terrorist bomb, He hears the explosion and watches the flames without realizing how this one event will change everything for him. Driving the next day with his family, he’s pulled from his car at a roadblock set up to find the bombers because the vehicle he’s driving is deemed by the police as being far too nice for a black man to own. He’s thrown to the ground, his family terrified both by the police aggression and by the dead body by the side of the road. Still apolitical, still determined to keep out of trouble, he’s arrested a few days later after taking the soccer team on an overnight trip. During his interrogation, an indiscretion makes him unwilling to account for where he had been all night, which leads to his torture and a changed worldview.
From here the action unfolds like a passion play, events taking on an almost metaphorical quality that still leaves the story no less horrific for being somehow so familiar. But there is in the way that Chamusso channeled his anger, and screenwriter Shawn Slovo recounts it, that makes this a story about triumph and even redemption. There is also the uneasy tension of having the terrorist of the piece fighting for a cause with which we continue to sympathize. There are two reasons for that dynamic. One is Luke’s open-hearted performance that leaves nothing back, not the simple joy of family life, not the subsumed anger of the role he must play acquiescing to apartheid that allows him to provide for that family, not the anger that is tortured out of and into him that seems to leave nothing inside him except the desire for revenge. The second is Philip Noyce’s direction that finely observes each moment without interfering in the audience’s discovery of it. The good and the bad, a smile between husband and wife, a glimpse of a fancy shoe that tells a tragic story of what happened to its owner, or the way sunlight slices across the screen revealing Chamusso, who recoils from it after a night of torture.
More enigmatic is Tim Robbins as Nic Voss, the policeman charged with solving the sabotage. As Chamusso’s nemesis, he is a cipher, barely registering any emotion, even as he brings Chamusso to his family’s Sunday dinner after spending weeks torturing him, or when he explains to Chamusso that the whites should be the ones living in fear because they are the minority. The part is written and played with an almost Eichmann-like detachment as he relentlessly preys on his victim’s human weaknesses, a bureaucrat who refuses to think about his duty, remaining only determined to do it. In theory, it’s ideal, in execution, Robbins undercuts the concept by being all but robotic.
CATCH A FIRE is an emotionally jarring film for many reasons. As an indictment of injustice on a universal level, it is without peer. As a political thriller, it is riveting. But it’s as a cautionary tale that it is most powerful. The society it depicts denies legal representation to the people it arrests, can hold those people indefinitely, and can use any means necessary to torture information or a confession out of them. Time to once again trot out that old saw about those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.