Thursday, December 03, 2015

ADIFF ’15: Impunity

This fugitive couple is sort of like a South African version of Breathless’s Belmondo and Seberg, but the country’s thorny race relations and persistent corruption will further complicate their crime spree. Once they start, they might as well go all in. At least that is how the very white Echo and Derren see it in Jyoti Mistry’s Impunity (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Echo is not a nymph, but Derren is maybe slightly narcissistic. Nevertheless, they might have made a nice couple together. Unfortunately, before the waitress has a chance to accompany the waiting customer home after last call, she is sexually attacked by the bar’s sleazy owner. Derren helps Echo kill him before he can finish, at which point the die is cast. Despite the justification of their actions, neither Echo nor Derren considers the possibility of justice. Instead, they light off together, living in the moment as outlaw lovers.

Although their first killing was a case of self-defense, their subsequent crimes become increasingly problematic. Echo’s immediate codependency will lead to destabilizing fits of jealousy, not wholly unlike the kind that fueled Fabrice du Welz’s Alleluia. Both are also apparently irresistible to South Africa’s multitude of races. A case in point being the government minister’s daughter, who died a grisly death after propositioning Derren. Her murder will put Pretoria police fixer Dingande Fakude on their trail. Reluctantly, local Indian copper Naveed Khan will assist his investigation, even though he openly questions Fakude’s motives and intentions.

There is a reason why “slow down and start from the beginning” is such good advice for over-heated storytellers. Striving for artistic pretension, Mistry fractures her narrative timeline, but the cinematic results fall maddeningly flat. With little reason for each flashforward and backwards, exasperated viewers will wonder why on earth they are being shown these scenes, in this order. The periodic cutaways to surveillance footage of brutal unrelated crimes also feel like old hat and are not particularly germane to the film from a thematic standpoint. Such self-conscious busyness is a shame, because there is a kernel of something buried within the film.

In its depiction of systemic government corruption and still corrosive racial attitudes, Impunity might have been a more inclusive companion film to the J.M. Coetzee adaptation Disgrace. The evolving dynamic between Fakude and Khan is particularly engaging and ultimately rewarding. It provides a Dos Passos like survey of South African society, from privileged white gated communities to still marginalized townships. However, Mistry’s structural and stylistic gimmicks repeatedly take the audience out of the picture.

Nevertheless, Alex McGregor and Bjorn Steinbach deserve all kinds of credit for their fierce commitment as Echo and Derren, respectively. Their intensity helps sell their reckless slide into outright sociopathic behavior. Desmond Dube and Vaneshran Arumugam also develop terrific chemistry together, without overplaying the odd couple buddy cop refrain. There are some impressive performances buttressing Impunity, but editors Melissa Parry and Khalid Shamis apparently were not allowed to give it a more logical shape.

To its credit, Impunity does not let anyone off the hook. Some might therefore find it significant solely for its social criticism. As cinema, it is rather frustrating. Still, it is an interesting film to dissect and analyze. For patrons looking for a potentially divisive film to debate, Impunity screens this Sunday (12/6) at MIST Harlem and Monday (12/7) at the Bow Tie Chelsea, as part of the special focus on South African cinema at this year’s ADIFF.