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Five Fingers for Marseilles (2017)

Directed by Michael Matthews

5 stars

In the bleakly beautiful Eastern Cape, in the dying days of the apartheid regime in South Africa, five boys grow, play and live a marginalised existence in the tiny township of Railway, built in the hills above the fading whites-only town of Marseilles. Calling themselves the Five Fingers (gentle storyteller Pastor; chubby Pockets; Luyanda, nicknamed Cockroach; the band’s leader, Zulu; and his fierce younger brother Tau, the Lion) they dream of an end to their oppression, eager to varying degrees for the moment where they can take direct action.

When a shakedown of the township’s population by corrupt cops gets out of hand, that moment comes all to soon. Tau shoots dead two policeman, and flees from his home.

Twenty years later, with blood on his hands metaphorically and, much of the time, literally, Tau (Vuyo Dabula) makes his way back to Marseilles and Railway where the longed-for freedom has come and gone. Pockets (Kenneth Nkosi) is now the corrupt mayor of New Marseilles; Cockroach (Mduduzi Mabaso) leads a band of thuggish cops (new feet in the same old boots); Pastor (Aubrey Poolo) has all but lost his faith; Zulu is dead. And a gang of outlaws led by the psychopathic Ghost (Hamilton Dhlamini) around is about to descend on the town…

In the eight years it took to bring this movie to life, the filmmakers immersed themselves in westerns (Hollywood, Italian and probably others, too) and it shows in all the right ways.

It’s possible to identify any number of famous westerns inspiring aspects of the story: all of Clint Eastwood’s movies for Leone (Tau is dubbed the Man called Nobody), The Magnificent Seven, Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter and Hang ‘Em High, Silverado, Once Upon A Time In The West, Shane and High Noon, and a dozen others.

But to see it principally as an assembly of western tropes and classic scenes is to miss the point. Five Fingers for Marseilles works entirely in its own right. Each scene is necessary to the logic of the plot and the characters of the protagonists.

Best of all, despite the small budget, this is a movie that never feels cramped or cheap. Michael Matthews and his colleagues have created a magnificent film: neither pastiche, parody nor slavish hommage, but a genuine western that somehow fits the landscape, culture, politics and timeframe of a land separated from the traditional western by thousands of miles and more than century.

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