Movie Review: Five Fingers for Marseilles

Five Fingers for Marseilles is a gritty South African western directed by Michael Matthews and written by Sean Drummond, starring Vuyo Dabula and Hamilton Dhlamini. A feature film directorial debut for Matthews, whose eye-catching short film Sweetheart demonstrated his knack for creating another world, Five Fingers for Marseilles is a long-awaited passion project. The tough-as-nails attitude of this curious view of post-Apartheid South Africa is underwritten by an experienced supporting cast including: Zethu Dlomo, Kenneth Nkosi, Warren Masemola and Jerry Mofokeng.

Legendary filmmaker Sergio Leone, responsible for many of the greatest westerns of all time and making Clint Eastwood a Hollywood icon, chose to film in Italy, which led to the term ‘spaghetti western’. Australia have had their fair share of westerns such as The Proposition, leveraging the outback, dust lands and oppressive heat. So it seems strange that we’re only seeing the emergence of South Africa’s first western in Five Fingers for Marseilles, especially when you consider how perfect our conditions are. There’s a rich history of characters, new frontiers, famous battles, open plains and a spirit of lawlessness, much like the Old West. Moreover, our country’s landscapes, rocky outcrops, desert regions and cattle farming make for a picturesque backdrop… not quite as epic as Monument Valley, but just as beautiful. Then, our high crime rates and considerable sense of freedom reflect the curious tension at the heart of the Wild West.

Five Fingers for Marseilles couldn’t have come at a better time, tipping the Stetson to current land reform issues, racial unrest and the Zupta debacle, while leveraging some of the associated tension. Starting with a group of friends, much like Noem my Skollie, we witness events that shape their futures and set the story in motion. One could have interpreted the title in such a way that you would expect a ruthless drifter to be claiming a finger from each of his bounty kills, however, as violent as it is… Five Fingers for Marseilles is more in line with Ocean’s Eleven. After the fierce young Tau kills two corrupt cops… he flees for safety, only to return to the beleaguered town of Marseilles two decades later.

“I don’t shoot pool… I shoot people.”

Following in the wake of Black Panther, several parallels have been drawn, due to its stellar and large black ensemble, political nature and aspirations of emulating similar albeit relative box office success. Blending aspects from Leone’s The Man with No Name character, A Fistful of Dollars (based on Yojimbo) and to a limited extent, The Magnificent Seven (based on The Seven Samurai), we have a time-honoured, hybridised and popular eastern turned western narrative with a fresh spin. The refresh is mostly tied into supplanting a western in South Africa, having a predominantly black cast and coaxing a tale that resonates with the “Zuptastan” view that most politicians and police chiefs are on the take, possibly linked to gangsters, or only in it for themselves.

Having a strong collective of performances raises the bar, making this a real team effort and keeping everyone in check. Vuyo Dabula plays an older Tau – a seemingly reformed gunslinger, showing great restraint, demonstrating a more concentrated fury, fearlessness and deep-seated stoicism. Every hero needs a great villain and Hamilton Dhlamini steals the show as Sepoko or The Ghost. His voice and intonation is amazing, his presence is immense and he brings the thunder with a similar verve to a latter-day Marlon Brando. Matching up in a flamboyant and whirlwind rivalry akin to Marshall Bravestarr versus Tex-Hex, Five Fingers for Marseilles steps up as these two face-off in a town too small for either of them. Mofokeng, Masemola and Nkosi add another layer to the film, adding their iconic faces and adept supporting performances to the melting pot.

Five Fingers for Marseilles matches its level of performance, characters and story with style. Filmed on location around the North-Eastern Cape village of Lady Gray, the western has some epic backdrops of mountains and high plains. The majestic natural setting gives it an otherworldliness, which makes it easier to simply accept wide brim hats, gun-toting bandits, horses and taverns in Africa. The cinematography is another major selling point, giving Five Fingers a sweeping, poetic and epic feel… taking full advantage of the natural surroundings, localised attributes and array of hardened faces. The grittiness is carried through by the production design, anchoring the western in African turf with wardrobe echoing this through local garments and fittings.

Five Fingers for Marseilles takes a while to get going… soaking up some time to construct the Five Fingers brotherhood. It’s only really once Tau starts stirring things up in Marseilles as an adult that one truly gets to grips with the pacing and characters. The film borrows quite liberally from Leone’s story devices and western tropes, but there’s enough of a spin to keep it from ever feeling stale. Five Fingers for Marseilles is fairly bleak and decidedly violent, not shying away from some disturbing scenes and more than earning its 16 age restriction. The genre blend is inspiring, the performances are solid, the atmosphere is brooding and the cinematography ratchets the western up a notch. It has some terrific and truly threatening villains and operates with flair. Most viewers will be rewarded for their patience, despite the violence.

The bottom line: Hardy