Movie Review: Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema

Rooting for the bad guys all the way

South Africa has come a long way – from being banned from the Olympics to hosting the World Cup, from no film industry to speak of to the Oscar winning Tsotsi, it’s clear that the country, badly scarred by its violent past and present, is ready to talk.

While Tsotsi could be accused of teetering a little too near sentimentality for those who’ve actually experienced violent crime in Johannesburg first hand, Jerusalema pulls no such punches. Nor does it focus purely on crime for crime’s sake. Instead, it tells a true story that is as abrasive as it is uplifting, peels away preconceived notions of right and wrong, and offers instead the chance to interpret ways that crime could in fact be the right decision.

From the slums of Soweto (depicted in all its blistering harshness) rises soon-to-be crime lord Lucky Kunene, one of the most sympathetic gangsters ever to grace the screen. He’s played with screen stealing joviality by newcomer Jafta Mamabolo, as an intelligent Karl Marx quoting boy held back by poverty and, for a very short time, morality. When he finally succumbs, under the dangerous silken influence of political exile turned local gangster (a chillingly muted Jeffrey Sekele), there are some fantastically comic moments that lie side by side the horrific violent reality – in particular, Lucky’s first carjack, which turns into a Laurel and Hardy style driving lesson, under the terrified instruction of the car’s previous owner, when it transpires Lucky has yet to learn to drive.

Its moments like these, and the spoils of his life of crime feeding his beloved family, that endear us to Lucky, so much so that when the adult Lucky starts plundering the degraded, poverty stricken Hillbrow area for real estate, we are indubitably on his side – as the film intends, no doubt. Named the “black Robin Hood” in the press, the name certainly fits, as he seizes dilapidated buildings from rich white owners, manipulates the law until they’re forced to sell at a huge loss – then swoops in, clears out the drug dealers and prostitutes, and thus helps his people rebuild their lives in the new South Africa – whilst reaping a tidy profit for himself in what is jokingly dubbed “affirmative repossession”. At war with his agenda are both sides of the law – a zealous cop and smarmy druglord. Lucky, played with mesmerising stoicism by Rapulana Seiphemo, is impressed by neither.

Lucky’s motto in life appears to mirror that of his hero Al Capone “If you’re going to steal, steal big and hope you get away with it”. The tragedy of this film is not the very real slice of poverty stricken Johannesburg living on broken promises in a post Apartheid slum. It is that, with such a moving story, with such sympathy for the erstwhile devil, there are so few characters in this film which have the breath of life. It’s often compelling and there’s certainly a big bang finish – but somehow, it’s still slightly flat. Someone, somewhere, didn’t steal quite big enough.

Andrea Hubert