Director: Gavin Hood
Screenwriter: Gavin Hood
Director of Photography:
Running time: 101 minutes
The South African A Reasonable Man is a carefully executed investigation into the importance of tribal or traditional beliefs in a country that sees itself as Western-oriented. The screenplay takes great care to handle the material sensibly, demonstrating the significance of the past in the present, and highlighting the fact that non-Western beliefs should not be dismissed out of hand, for they too have a role to play, however “unreasonable” their basis might be in the eyes of the law.
The film opens in Angola in 1988, during the final years of the South African Border War. South African soldiers arrive in a tiny village where they find nothing but abandoned houses. The squad separates and a young Sean Raine goes to hide in one of these houses. When a closet door creaks, the tense Raine unloads his gun on the flimsy plywood door. What tumbles out of the closet will haunt him for a long time.
Ten years later, having recently returned to South Africa after spending a decade abroad with his wife, Raine meets a young cowherd named Sipho in a village in the Eastern part of the country known as Kwazulu-Natal. Sipho is found with a bloody hatchet in his hands, while a woman clutches a one-year-old baby in her arms, its head split open. Sipho swears that he was only trying to kill the “Tikoloshe” (or “Tokoloshe”, as I know it), an evil spirit, and not the baby. Luckily, Raine is a lawyer, and because of his experience in Angola he decides to give the boy a chance and chooses to represent him in court.
But “Tikoloshe” is not a word that anybody takes kindly to – except Sipho and a witch doctor (or “sangoma”) who would help rid Sean Raine of his demons from the past – and it seems unlikely that the boy, who admits to having swung the hatchet, would be judged innocent. Hearing this case is Judge Wendon, whose initial surprise at Raine’s refusal to let his client plead insanity defence slowly morphs into a more accommodating view of the young lawyer. Starring as Judge Wendon is Nigel Hawthorne, who brings a very welcome combination of compassion, wit and judicial solemnity to the role.
At the centre of the film, however, is director Gavin Hood himself, who is cast as Sean Raine, a man whose big clean-shaven face is innocent yet shimmers with conviction and perseverance. The film is as much about Raine’s personal story as the criminal proceeding, for he feels that he would finally be freed from this “snake deep inside” if he manages to assure Sipho’s acquittal.
Now, it is made clear that Sipho took a hatchet and struck a baby in such a way that the baby was killed. Sipho believed that it was the Tikoloshe, but the steadfastness of one’s beliefs has nothing to do with the law, as Judge Wendon makes very clear in his comparison of Sipho’s beliefs with those of mass murderers and historical figures such as Hitler and Stalin.
Hood’s screenplay flows very well, although its desire not only to meet the audience more than halfway but to spell everything out in overly informative sentences sometimes seems quite contrived. Sipho’s character has to be a bit of an enigma in order for the film to exist, but the lack of interaction between him and Raine, as well as the complete absence of the mother of the murdered baby, left me wondering whether Hood was not too interested in his own character.
The film makes an interesting analogy between Christian and tribal beliefs, including the ever-popular metaphor of Christ’s blood and body, and in this regard Hood is successful in introducing his audience to customs that might be foreign to them. Hood’s choice to make the state prosecutor a black advocate and himself, a white man, the representative for the defence of tribal beliefs, is very interesting and provides this film with a much richer texture than it would have had otherwise.
The implications of an imbalance, in the eyes of the law, between Western and non-Western morality is hammered home a bit too forcefully, but in the end the film survives its examination of social and religious customs and certainly provides ample material for discussion afterwards. The courthouse is in Pietermaritzburg, in South Africa, a town whose licence plate designation is NP. Perhaps this is a coincidence. But, considering the film’s attention to detail, perhaps it isn’t.