Five Fingers for Marseilles proved we’re able to make homegrown westerns that are sweeping, taut, politically-charged, poetic and epic. It’s in this same light that Sew the Winter to My Skin arrives, a historical adventure drama about the legend of Samson of the Bosch, essentially a South African version of Robin Hood.
Set in the 1950s near Graaff-Reneit in South Africa during the time of the Ossewa Brandwag, a liberal journalist relays the epic chase of the outlaw known as Samson. Sew the Winter to My Skin contrasts the rising tensions between police, underground organisations and township communities. In a similar sway to Five Fingers for Marseilles, racial tension, land issues and housing matters become the crux… through some brutal and visceral clashes.
While this informs Sew the Winter to My Skin’s period, the tone shifts from urban chaos to rural whimsy as brutal historical action makes way for a sparkling pastoral adventure. Moving from a historical drama with an intensity akin to Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation, the film adopts a similar tone to the Coen brothers’s Oh Brother Where Art Thou, employing a close quirkiness in relation to character.
Director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka casts the net out wide, encompassing an array of subplots as the story comes to focus on the man known as Samson and his arch-rival Botha. It’s universal in terms of its overarching story of a poor man stealing livestock from a wealthy man. While it operates in the guise of a parable, it’s much more complex in its nuanced and whimsical tone.
“It’s just ewe and me now.”
Sew the Winter to My Skin is lush and beautifully-filmed. It looks and sounds the part thanks to its technical agility, which undoubtedly led it to become South Africa’s official selection for Best Foreign film at the Academy Awards. Leaning on some brilliant casting, we’re treated to a dramatic adventure that could have played as a silent movie based on the limited dialogue.
Ezra Mabengeza is John Kepe, the infamous ‘Samson of the Bosch’, who is handsome and exudes a natural charm and candescence. German actor, Peter Kurth, has great presence and takes on the scattered and frustrated villain that is Botha. Canadian-South African actress, Kandyse McClure is striking as always with an earthier turn. Bok van Blerk is styled to look like Matt Damon in Suburbicon, dedicated and controlled as the constant journalist, while Antoinette Louw is severely under-utilised.
The choice to focus on visuals may have been to enable the film-makers to play up the technical aspect of the picture, protect the collective ensemble performance or open the door as wide as possible in terms of language barriers. While the aesthetic qualities certainly do a lot to carry the over 2-hour film, the lack of dialogue does keep you at an arm’s length, takes away from some of the realism, distances the characters and re-focuses the film on themes rather relational dynamics. Using an old world soundtrack adds to the offbeat charm and assists the storytelling in light of the ambitious decision to work from a very sparse script.
While meticulously crafted, its difficult to immerse oneself in the secret lives of the characters and this undermines what could have ostensibly been a masterpiece for Jahmil X.T. Qubeka. While Sew the Winter to My Skin has strong African roots, the Coen brothers influence is just as strong, giving the film a familiar feel. The tonal shifts are quite jarring and while the adventure crime comedy at its core enlivens things, the near wordless film does become a bit stuffy. One can appreciate the detail, nuance and poetry of the visuals; the epic cross-country chase and the political edge, but it’s just not enough to overpower the stilted nature of the drama.
The bottom line: Picturesque