Monday, April 04, 2011

South Africa at AFA: Saturday Night at the Palace

The owner of the Palace roadhouse is a crusty old codger, but maybe a decent sort at heart. Ordinarily, September is quite happy slinging burgers for him there, but not tonight. It has nothing to do with his boss though, but where they live: South Africa. Based on co-star Paul Slabolepszy’s stage play, director-cinematographer Robert Davies’ Saturday Night at the Palace screens this Thursday when the United We Stand: South African Cinema during Apartheid retrospective kicks off at Anthology Film Archives.

September is as straight as they come, which his boss respects. He trusts the hardworking father of seven to close his burger joint. He even gives him paid vacation and a bonus for his yearly visit home. Unfortunately, September will have no back-up to deal with Vince and Forsie, two drunken white trash losers, nursing their very different resentments.

The nakedly racist Vince is particularly bad news. Recently cut by his semi-pro football team, Vince specializes in wearing out his welcome. His socially awkward friend Forsie is supposed to tell his brutish pal he has been expelled from their crash pad, but he has trouble finding the words. Stopping at the Palace after closing, Forsie tries to have it out with the hulking Aryan, but Vince is more interested in hassling the profoundly vulnerable September.

While Palace spends about fifteen minutes on exposition that was probably quickly dispensed with on stage, it quickly hits its stride once it brings the three leads come together in that isolated location. Though there is nary anything explicitly political about the story or dialogue, we understand it only works as a thriller because of the perversities of South Africa’s legal system at the time. The simple truth is September never has the option of calling the cops on his unwelcome customers, because the law would never side with him on principle. The dubious state of his work permits only increases the precariousness of his position.

Equal parts thriller and tragedy, Palace is marked by an unremitting naturalism. Still, it is possible to read an allegorical level into the film. Vince easily represents the hardcore Apartheid Nationalists, but Forsie could be seen as a stand-in for the white liberals too timid to stand up for what they knew was right.

Clint Howard lookalike Bill Flynn and the very blond Slabolepszy are quite convincing as Forsie and Vince, respectively. Between the two of them, convey everything ugly that is distinctly human. However, the film is probably most notable for the work of the celebrated South African actor John Kani, who brings genuine dignity and intensity to a somewhat one-dimensional victim role.

Given its credentials, it is strange Palace is not more frequently featured in repertory screenings. It is certainly on the right side of history, but it also works quite well just as cinema. It is a solid choice to launch the United series this Thursday (4/7) at AFA.