In Marseilles, a small Eastern Cape town of Apartheid-era South Africa, five young friends who call themselves the Five Fingers rebel together against the corrupt white police forces.
They throw eggs and rocks, using their precious slingshots while hidden on roofs or behind walls, in what is both a real and serious conflict but looks almost an innocent game.
When the policemen kidnap a young girl of the village in retaliation, Tau, Toka Mtabane, the most reckless and violent of the Five Fingers, saves her and kill the policemen in the process. Having crossed the line of innocence, he leaves the town behind and lets his friend deal with the consequences of his actions.
Twenty years and many misfortunes later, Tau (now played by Vuyo Dabula (“Invictus”, “Avengers: Age Of Ultron“)) comes back to Marseilles hoping to find a peaceful place to live in, but what he enters instead is a town under a different but just as violent new threat: Sepoko, Hamilton Dhlamini (“Otelo Burning”, “Jozi”), a mysterious man filled with bad intentions, threatens to take over the town while Tau’s old friends, formerly united against oppression, have now split and grown into different men.
Tau’s flame for correcting injustice is very much unchanged, however, and he will do all he can to protect his hometown once again.
From its very first images, Five Fingers for Marseilles brings to mind the western genre: the desolate landscape of the small Eastern Cape town, the cowboy-inspired outfits of the characters, and obviously the fight for one’s land are all taken from a genre too often associated with the American Far West.
Here, they work just as well, especially in the sociopolitical context of South Africa that grounds the story in reality, making us feel more involved with the characters and the plot.
The desolate western-like landscapes are wonderfully captured by director of photography Shaun Lee, who does an absolutely fantastic job as each shot is a pleasure to watch, especially when accompanied by James Matthes’ beautiful score.
Five Fingers for Marseilles is however not purely a western (although it certainly is the main genre director Michael Matthews (“Sweetheart (Short)”, “Wide Open (Short)”) and writer Sean Drummond (“Sweetheart (Short)”, “Wide Open (Short)”) were going for).
By having the film open on a fifteen minutes flashback introducing the characters at a stage of innocence, their lives well ahead of them, the changes that occur in the twenty years flash forward are very much highlighted and become an important but subtle component of the story.
When the Five Fingers were children, their friendship seemed unbreakable and the conflict much simpler to understand, but twenty years later everything is much more muddled and complex, paralleling our own understanding of the world as we mature into adulthood – and echoing just as well the changes in South African society.
And, although the Fingers have changed, we always empathize with them because we understand who they were and what they had to go through. In that sense, the film shows a lot of empathy reminiscent indeed of coming-of-age dramas.
When it comes to the main antagonist however, surprisingly, it is the super-hero genre that comes to mind: although none of the characters have super powers, Sepoko wouldn’t be out of place in a gang of super villains, especially when thunder and lightning seem to follow him and strike at the same time as his anger.
This only accentuates the menacing aura his deep voice and imposing presence already gives him and proves the need for a group of heroes – very much humane but super in their bravery – to take him down.
My main complaint would be the underutilization of the only female character, Lerato, Zethu Dlomo (“Black Sails (TV)”, “Mary And Martha”). She is ostracized from the Five Fingers even though her friendship with the boys is just as strong, and her screen time is very limited when the movie could have clearly beneficiated from a more fleshed-out version of her character.
The final battle could have also delivered much more, especially with such a great build-up. Despite this, Five Fingers for Marseilles is a great addition to the western genre and just a great movie on its own, with wonderful performances and splendid cinematography.