'Five Fingers For Marseilles' Is A Soulful South African Western That Inverts The Genre In Triumphant Fashion

There's an irony to the term "Revisionist Western." It makes sense within the confines of the genre itself, delving into moral greys and tales of adapting to survive, all while taking the form of cinema once steeped in moral binaries. In a historical context however, it's essentially re-revisionism — or reclamation, if the term tickles your fancy — taking back a genre built on a mythical cowboy that only existed through a lens of whiteness (most historical cowboys weren't Caucasian, but I digress). It's fitting, then, that a modern transposition of the genre like Menoana e Mehlano ea Marseilles (or Five Fingers for Marseilles) is so exact in its (re)revisionism.

Set in a small town on the Eastern Cape, Michael Matthews' postcolonial Western opens in late Apartheid-era South Africa before jumping forward several decades; other than the ages of its characters though, little changes in Marseilles. Its "Five Fingers" are five teenage friends who fancy themselves protectors. Tau, "The Lion," leads his brother Zulu, local rich kid "Pockets," their feisty chum "Cokroach" and preacher-kid "Pastor" in a slingshot standoff. The game, while innocent, is tinged with violent instinct; these are friends who care for each other, but they're bound more by circumstance than by camaraderie; even their games need to prepare them for a harsh reality. Their railway town is a runoff from the days of colonial arrival, both forgotten and preyed upon by the white man — specifically, white police officers who come at the end of each month extort the local businesses.

It's these corrupt cops that the ill-equipped Five hope to fend off, but their standoff goes awry. The officers are left dead. Tau flees the scene, leaving home behind, for better and for significantly worse.

Years pass. Tau, now an adult, become embroiled in a life of crime, stealing to survive alongside a new band of brothers. He's a man with no story to tell, and when he finally returns to Marseilles, unkempt and unrecognizable, he finds his home frozen in stasis. The rest of the country has moved on, but this Railway town has barely seen expansion; if anything, things have gotten worse. Tau's brother is dead, leaving behind a son who never knew him. "Pockets" is a corrupt Mayor; water is but a political promise. "Cockroach" (or "the broken one") has replaced the Afrikaner police; he now extorts the local Chinese shopkeeper. "The Pastor," while narratively short-changed, is hidden away by for the most part, avoiding all local conflict as he takes comfort in religious tales detached from his homeland. These kids were once storytellers, claiming their scripture was the land itself. But they've turned their back on it, allowing it to be run by nearby gang men and leaders who fail their people.

As if inadvertently in step with colonial departures, and European invaders washing their hands of the very instability they caused in the first place, Tau's abandonment of Marseilles leaves a vacuum for violent reprisal. The town has devolved ever since, replacing the structures of Apartheid with its own corruption and violence, a survival mechanism that cannot dissipate so long as survival itself requires violent response.

Five Fingers breathes during its wistful night scenes; a bar populated by what feel like stock villains at first becomes a place of commiseration. Old friends don't have reunions so much as conflicted confrontations, recognizing each other only amidst ferocious outbursts and by the light of violent flames. Director Matthews, along with cinematographer Shaun Harley Lee, create an atmosphere that feels both parched and pristine; its bone-dry hillsides would be hellish were it not for the nostalgic eyes we seem through. As the film gradually devolves into all-out war, with factions fighting to regain control of their home land (not to mention their dignity), each character's silent, soul-piercing regret makes bloodshed feel like a necessity — both to quench each tormented conscience, and to protect a place they continue to gaze upon with holy reverence. 

It wouldn't really be a spoiler to say the remaining four Fingers do, eventually, re-unite in some fashion, but their reunion isn't accompanied by the horns of victory. This isn't The Five Fingers Ride Again!, but rather, a film in which each character knows, deep down, that they don't simply need to protect their home from outside forces. They need to protect it from each other. The film is cynical by necessity, with anti-heroes trapped by their own moral corruption to the point that the very idea of a character arc is a straight road to demise. While their slingshots were a choice, the guns that now replace them become the only possible respite from the gangland carnage that continues to consume Marseilles; change, for the Five Fingers, means taking a final stand.

The town being named for the city in France feels almost cruel, as if colonizers sought to remake it in their own image and abandoned it once their tracks were built, setting its dwellers on a path that could not lead anywhere else but slaughter. "Only a train knowns where it's going," says one of the Five during their teenaged prologue. The trajectory of colonial history continues to be uneasy. Its fallout still felt across generations.

There's no glory to gunshots in Five Fingers for Marseilles. No bravado to the bullets, and certainly no triumph in Tau's return. And yet, the film itself is triumphant, rife with rattling performances and centering Sesotho and Xhosa above English and Blackness above the Western's white default, simply as a matter of normality. Ultimately, it paints a portrait of melancholy heroism rising from cyclical conflict, and of righteousness restrained by circumstance, ending in the same place it began while traversing worlds in the interim.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10


Five Fingers for Marseilles opens in limited release on September 7, 2018.