Friday, July 22, 2011

Oliver Schmitz: Meandering Melodrama (Life, Above All)

Khomotso Manyaka, Life, Above All, Sony Pictures Classics

One key virtue of the equal distribution of the melodrama is that it has no borders. The weepie can be from Golden Era Hollywood, 1980s China or modern South Africa. What entwines them as a genre is their reliance on classical theatrical methods of character and narrative development, as well as the universality of human emotion. Their success depends upon the hand which shapes them into a cohesive cinematic whole.

McCarey, Ozu, Sirk, and Fassbinder all mastered the dual devices of the form, while directors such as Seaton, Kramer, Columbus and Perry have struggled with coalescing the fragments. While the latter directors have crafted some interesting films and the sporadic great one, their are debatable as members of the master pantheon, to say the least.

Oliver Schmitz falls more into the second group, although there are moments of clarity and power in his film Life, Above All. Set in a South African village, he traces the coming of age of brave little Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) as she holds her fractured family together in the midst of disease, alcoholism, village strife and death. Manyaka's performance is revelatory as she fearlessly inhabits the fragility and courage of this young woman. The remaining cast members are the tops as well.

A good choice on Schmitz's part is to steep his film in a cutting realism, steeped in the bleached out colors of Bernhard Jasper's piercing cinematography. Yet he fails to mold the work in any encapsulating manner, which I understand is partially the point. The film just is. Only the plot is too been there, the execution too threadbare to be transformative as it could have been. He does say a lot about less developed countries, children and families. We've just heard it all before.

Let's say that there are many elements which make the film here worth existing, yet a whole they do not make. Schmitz  has promise, but this meandering third world melodrama cannot be his fulfillment. George Seaton began with the tepid Betty Grable vehicle, Diamond Horseshoe, and Tyler Perry began with the mixed bag Madea's Family Reunion. Here's looking to his future as a hands on gritty melodrama meister.

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