The first thing to say about Moffie is that it looks absolutely stunning. Good that it does, for there is little beauty in the subject matter.
It tells the story of Nick (Kai Luke Brummer), a young white man completing national service during the South African Border War. The majority of the film takes place at a training camp, an unrelenting combination of psychological torment and physical abuse. Yet inevitably, bonds are formed – first with Sachs (Michael Vey) and then Stassen (Ryan de Villiers), with whom Nick has a romantic involvement that is never fully realised. Consciously so, for director Oliver Hermanus did not want to make a “relationship drama”. Instead the film explores a country and an era defined by brutal ideals of masculinity, and what that means for the way men relate to one another, gay or not.
The most interesting of these relationships is between Nick and his father, a soft-spoken, smiling man who, we sense, has had to step aside for more masculine men during his own life. Nick’s mother has remarried – a bigger, louder Afrikaner whose name (Van de Swart) Nick has assumed so he isn’t ridiculed for his English heritage. Nick’s most valuable possession at the camp is a photograph of his father, but their relationship is complex and prone to miscommunication: on the night Nick leaves, he gives him a porn magazine – “In case you need some ammunition”. Nick later trades it to get his photo back.
Violence and aggressive heterosexuality are interchangeable at the training camp, where two recruits are brutalised for kissing in the shower. Toxic ideals of manhood are (almost literally) drilled into their heads. These expectations are inescapable, and showing this is what Moffie does best. Save a couple of lines from Nick’s mother and some girls in a bar, the only characters who speak are white men. Sadistic, racist, homophobic figures recur throughout the film, deliberately indistinguishable from one another – some are faceless, others look identical. They are not really individuals, but representations of a force that permeates everything. The gift of the porn magazine is not simply a father misunderstanding his son, it is a father attempting to engage in the kind of relationship he thinks he should have with his son, one which he himself isn’t really interested in having. Neither man is suited to the intensely masculine society in which they live, yet its expectations vandalise their own private relationship. They are doubly victimised.
The use of music is sometimes heavy-handed, and the writing not entirely free of cliché, but Moffie achieves exactly what it sets out to, and in a powerful and compelling way.
Moffie is released digitally on Curzon Home Cinema on 24th April 2020.
Watch the trailer for Moffie here: