Movie Review: Salvation

South Africa is flourishing when it comes to female directors, cresting with excellent work from the likes of Sara Blecher (Dis ek, Anna), Hanneke Schutte (Meerkat Maantuig), Rene van Rooyen (Toorbos), Nosipho Dumisa (Nommer 37) and Jenna Bass (Flatland). While male-dominated Hollywood is slowly coming to terms with the disparity, which should help send ripples of change worldwide, it’s promising to see a new wave of local directors emerging in spite of the global film industry climate. Another female writer-director, who is showing great promise is Carmen Sangion, who has just released her debut film, Salvation.

This multi-narrative faith-based drama follows after a number of short films in which Sangion’s been able to craft character-driven pieces that tackle deeper emotional and psychological issues. Her feature film explores the lives of three characters trying to break free from their past, whose worlds cross over. Set in present-day Johannesburg, the drama follows Father Benjamin, a weary Catholic priest searching for answers; Roxy, a disconnected stripper and Ezra, a young fugitive.

Salvation stars Clayton Evertson (Maze Runner: The Death Cure), Jason Willemse (Scandal, Generations) and Kira Wilkinson (Flatland, Hard Copy) as Father Benjamin, Ezra and Roxy respectively. The casting is good, giving each actor an opportunity to grapple with characters at a cross-roads. Evertson looks the part and is challenged to go deep with a multi-faceted take on a type character. Willemse is tasked with playing a disillusioned drifter, struggling to find stability, laying low and desperate to find connection. Wilkinson has a fascinating face and the most challenging role, managing to draw empathy for Roxy who is struggling with identity and self-esteem.

Sangion has crafted a respectable character-driven drama and strong themes. Often using handheld cameras to give the drama more of an immediacy and energising performances, she has a good eye, able to maintain a sense of poetry to this art house entry. Keeping the story moving along quite swiftly, this is a sparsely scripted film with many scenes passing by with a single line. The choppy edit keeps the pacing from lagging but does create some distance, especially since the characters don’t have all that much dialogue to push back on. The performances and direction are able enough to keep an earnest disposition, but the characterisation is a bit vague and the writing is a little clichéd at times.

“Let it all out my child.”

To be taken seriously, you can’t simply ignore obvious film-making errors, which include subtitle blips and a patch of missing sound. This shatters dramatic tension and should have been cleared up before the film screened. Then, the direction ranges from deft to heavy-handed, raising a few questions around the character interplay as real-life solutions are overlooked and contrivances ache. Sangion manages to concoct some artfully shot scenes with steady direction that give an indication of her true potential. Unfortunately, however personal a story and committed the actors, Salvation is undermined by inconsistency and a thin script.

It’s easier to get away with limited dialogue in a decidedly poetic art house drama but the difficulty becomes fleshing out characters and story by other means. The soundtrack is promising with music by Kim Stone, including an ethereal reworking of Radiohead’s iconic track ‘Creep’. The audio-visuals have their moments with several montages, but hints of story aren’t enough. This enigmatic atmosphere can only take you so far before your characters actually have to standalone.

While the dialogue does gradually evolve, it’s generally uninspired and does just enough to create a sense of progress. Perhaps the sound was limited to get the best shot in the quickest time. While you can appreciate the film’s aesthetic qualities, which would probably draw further commendation based on budget, it underlines the importance of developing the invisible elements of film-making.

Salvation is a promising and artfully shot debut with good performances and powerful themes but the overall impression is lacklustre. There’s enough promise to make this a respectable and even noble effort, but let’s hope the experiential learning gleaned from this faith-based drama will be sown into her next feature.

The bottom line: Lacklustre