“Moffie” is a South African “Full Metal Jacket,” a drama about the dehumanizing nature of combat training, the need to turn “soft” conscripts into unquestioning killing machines and an arm of foreign policy and the psychic cost that can have.
But this early ’80s period piece is about South Africa under Apartheid. The troops are training to fight “communism” on the border of Angola, a former Portuguese colony whose civil war included communists, and which South Africa was hellbent on “containing.”
And the sensitive young man hurled into this environment of violence, virulent racism, bullying and intimidation is never going to “fit in. Because “moffie” is a South African slur for “gay.”
Kai Luke Brummer is Nicholas van der Swart, whose last night “free” is a party in his honor, one in which he confides to his mother (Barbara-Marié Immelman) that he’s “plotting my escape (in English and Afrikaans with subtitles).”
Every white 16 year-old male in the country was being summoned, and the prep school “English” kid who looks like a blond Eddie Redmayne has no way out. Can he keep his head down and pass muster?
He makes a friend of a fellow recruit (Matthew Vey) on the train to training camp, recoils from the racist hooting and brutality that spills off the train at Black Africans they see along the way, endures bullying from his comrades and actual abuse from his sadistic, foul-mouthed drill instructor (Hilton Pelser) and tries to avoid being labeled a “moffie,” and a fate worse than merely washing out — “Ward 22.”
That’s where they send those who crack-up or are outed as gay.
South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus (“Beauty”) takes the classic structure of the boot camp drama in all its brutality, climaxing with that “first test in combat,” and blends in Vietnam-like “unpopular war,””racism” and the dangers of being a closeted homosexual in that era into the mix.
He plays up the homoerotic nature of military service — a single-sex environment of young men, exercised to a high level of fitness, shirtless at work and showering in groups — and parks a recruit whom we learn has some idea already of who he is into that.
That’s the secret Nicholas must keep in a place where revealing that could lead to beatings or worse. The stress and trauma of all this breaks one comrade in a very “Full Metal Jacket” way.
Hermanus, who co-wrote the script, gives short shrift to the nature of Late Apartheid racism here, with just a single, bitterly-poignant scene carrying that part of this “nothing heroic about it” story.
And the film’s training flirtation that begins in a fox hole? That’s just so on the nose.
But “Moffie” makes for a fascinating variation on a well-worn theme. And Brummer, bringing a stoicism to this “no place for a sensitive young man” experience, let’s us appreciate who Nicholas is and just what sort of mettle a man had to have just to endure that and survive.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, drug abuse, nudity and profanity
Cast: Kai Luke Brummer, Matthew Vey, Ryan de Villiers and Barbara-Marié Immelman
Credits: Directed by Oliver Hermanus, script by Oliver Hermanus, Jack Sidey An IFC release.
Running time: 1:44