Review: ‘Moffie’ adroitly depicts a gay man’s life within the apartheid-era South African military

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Apartheid South Africa was expert in churning out hate in the ruling white minority, and when one happened to be gay — then a literal crime — the loathing was conditioned to turn inward, too, like a self-throttling. Key to the sanctioned barbarism that defined the particular regime was its conscripting of young white men into their ongoing border battles, a brutalizing passage straight into toxic hetero-manhood depicted along with pressurized sensitivity and artful dread in Oliver Hermanus’ compelling dramatic feature “Moffie, ” named for the Afrikaans homophobic slur that adopted anyone perceived as insufficiently manly.

The story, adapted from a memoir-like novel by André Carl van dieser Merwe, is set in 1981, when fair-haired, soft-featured teenager Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) is about to start two years of mandatory military service in the South African Defense Force, nourishing a advertising campaign at the northern border (what is now independent Namibia) shooting at USSR-backed Angolans. The patriotic series was about stopping communism; the reality was defense of a racist state. And from the jolting train journey to the first grim days in homogeneous — intensified by a square aspect ratio that acts as a vise on Nicholas’ viewpoint, and a groaning, plucked-strings rating like an upset stomach — these early scenes are a charged sequence of ritualistic brutality and dehumanization, without any hint of simple training as some romanticizing shaper of healthy discipline.

Kai Luke Brummer relaxes in a bar in the movie "Moffie."

Kai Luke Brummer in the film “Moffie. ”

(Daniel Rutland Manners/IFC Films)

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These are young men reinforced in violent bigotry. The more wild-eyed conscripts are already equipped sufficient in hate to gleefully hurl invective at a Black man waiting at a place platform; at camp, these people in turn get abused into a more systematic compliance in sour machismo by snarling Sgt. Brand (a pulsing Hilton Pelser), nastily fixated on ridding his rates of any homosexuality. (One imagines this version of a well-trod military archetype wouldn’t even abide the “this is my gun” gesture in the Marine chant produced famous in “Full Metal Jacket” — might lead to the wrong kind of “fun. ”)

The atmosphere easily breeds macho policing. Intended for Nicholas, being gay means being hyper-aware, a survival-minded observer shrewd enough to deflect any aggressive jock talk that grows intimidating. Though the parting gift of the porn mag from his caring dad initially appeared clueless, at the right moment it proves useful as a badge of straightness. But Nicholas — played with permanent magnet reserve by Brummer — also recognizes a kindred partner in concealment whenever he sees one, permitting friendly exchanges with caring fellow recruit Dylan Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) to become an unspoken desire plus watchful caring. That’s all it may get to be, too, taking into consideration the punishment not only meted out there in front of the recruits to those captured in homosexual acts, but also the rumors of a horrific place some are being delivered to for further “treatment. ”

Hermanus, as a Dark, queer South African, is not about to paint Nicholas’ situation as on a par with apartheid’s true victims. But the emotional intelligence he infuses “Moffie” with — all the way through its inevitable march towards the front line — feels personal nonetheless, and empathetically inquisitive about the kind of masculine indoctrination that fuels oppression through rituals of violence and the criminalizing of identification. It’s especially resonant within the brilliantly shot flashback scenes dramatizing a memory of Nicholas’ from a swimming pool incident — one in which their dad memorably figures — and how distractive curiosity turns into the stuff of abiding, debilitating shame.

Aside from the many fine shows and the aforementioned boxed framing of Jamie Ramsay’s coolly evocative cinematography — the still-refreshing aesthetic choice that rewards attention to close-ups, systems and landscapes — Hermanus’ use of different music designs is enriching, too, combining Braam du Toit’s rating with recordings (from traditional to opera to disco) that atmospherically complement the emotional timeline. Closing the film after an enigmatic, melancholy beach scene is a haunting cover of the Rodriguez song and unexpected apartheid-era anthem “Sugar Man, ” like a solemn coda regarding who we are after we have been taught not only to kill others, but something inside us.

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‘Moffie’

In Afrikaans and English with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, forty-four minutes

Playing: Starts April 9, Laemmle Regal, West L. A.; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Noho 7, North The show biz industry; also available on digital plus VOD