Boesman and Lena Directed by John Berry Written by John Berry Starring Angela Bassett and Danny Glover Classification: PG Rating: **½ The worthy, if fatiguing, Boesman and Lena stars Angela Bassett and Danny Glover as a homeless couple fighting with the elements and each other on the mud flats of a South African river.
The drama has a significant theatrical pedigree. Adapted from a 1970 play by South Africa's celebrated dramatist Athol Fugard ( Blood Knot, The Island), Boesman and Lena was filmed before (1974) with Fugard himself in the role of Boesman. The play shares elements with Waiting for Godot (two tramps, the elusiveness of memory and hope) but scratch its fragmented, absurdist surface, and it quickly reveals itself as a message drama about the stepladder of oppression, in a specifically South African context.
Boesman and Lena is directed by the film and theatre director John Berry, who died, at 82, when the film was in postproduction. An original member of Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre, director of a theatrical adaptation of Richard Wright's Native Son and long-time champion of Fugard's work, Berry spent most of his life in exile in Paris after being blacklisted as a communist during the McCarthy era. (Among his best-known films are Claudine, with James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll, and, improbably, The Bad News Bears Go to Japan.)
This is essentially a stageplay on film, with some fairly self-conscious attempts to open it up. We begin with black-and-white images of the couple, as their shanty is burned and destroyed by bulldozers before they are driven out. As the movie starts, we see them marching on a dusty road, carrying their bundles of twigs and belongings, before settling down to build a shanty out of wood, string, a car door and other roadside garbage. In front of them is the river; in the distance, the mountains.
They are, we gradually learn, joined by a common history. They have travelled a long time. Once, they had a baby daughter and a real home. Now they collect bottles and recycle them. In a series of angry arguments, Lena struggles to remember their history -- from which town to which town they have gone, whether it was she or Boesman who broke three bottles that morning. She also misses a mongrel dog they had. Boesman, who mocks and berates her, also beats her from time to time. He's also the one who remembers the past, and holds on to the two bottles of wine they have, to stupefy themselves into sleep.
The dynamic of their power struggle changes when a third person arrives, an ancient sickly Xhosa tribesman (Willie Jonah), whose language they do not understand. Lena, who values him as "another pair of eyes," insists on adopting him, much to Boesman's scorn.
There's much that's worthy here, from Fugard's poetically charged tirades, Glover's and Bassett's intelligent if somewhat overly declamatory performances as a pair of drab, lost souls, hidden in rags and dust.
There's also some subtlety in Fugard's analysis of how oppression is internalized as well as forced from outside. Boesman and Lena are light-skinned or "coloured" rather than black like the tribesman, and the power structure -- white over coloured, coloured over black, men over women -- is offered up for scrutiny.
The link between memory and identity (perhaps a fresher insight in 1970 than it is today) gets particular emphasis, as Lena struggles to learn who she is by retracing where she has been.
By the end, the film feels like more of an historical artifact than a piece of contemporary art. Instead of a fresh shock of compassion or insight into injustice, the viewer is likely to nod along to the familiar theme, content with viewing the drama's moral ledger book, rather than experiencing outrage or emotional transport.