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The Big Movie: 'Catch a Fire' (PG-13)

Weekend!Movies: Good, evil not neat opposites in complex tale
by: COURTESY OF FOCUS FEATURES, Col. Nic Vos (Tim Robbins) follows Precious (Bonnie Henna), the wife of a suspect in an oil-refinery bombing in apartheid-era South Africa.

Australian director Phillip Noyce's experience directing thrillers ('Clear and Present Danger,' 'Patriot Games') and smaller, more politically oriented pieces ('Rabbit-Proof Fence,' 'The Quiet American') pays off in this exceptional mix of both sensibilities about the fight against oppression in apartheid-era South Africa.

Derek Luke ('Antwone Fisher') plays Patrick Chamusso, a cautious man with a strong commitment to keeping his head down and his nose clean as he devotes himself to his career at an oil refinery.

Called an Uncle Tom by one of his co-workers, it's painfully ironic when circumstantial evidence makes Patrick a suspect in a bombing at the refinery, accused of helping members of the revolutionary African National Congress gain access to the plant.

Chamusso is taken to an interrogation center, where he's systematically questioned, tortured and threatened by Col. Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), a coldly soulless man who even goes so far as to bring Chamusso to his home for Sunday dinner as he uses every interrogation technique in his bag of tricks to make Chamusso confess.

Complicating the issue is Chamusso's refusal to say where he was the night of the bombing - he was visiting an old girlfriend, and he doesn't want his wife, Precious (Bonnie Henna), to find out.

It's only when Precious is taken and tortured as well that Chamusso gives in and confesses to save her - at which point Vos knows he's innocent, because he gets the facts wrong.

What follows is a scathing examination of how oppression and torture breed terrorism, as the now bitter Chamusso leaves South Africa to train with the ANC and join the fight against apartheid, becoming the violent radical that Vos mistakenly believed him to be.

Written by Shawn Slovo, whose parents were major players in the fight against apartheid, the film occasionally succumbs to Noyce's mainstream-thriller sensibilities, and Robbins' presence is something of a distraction.

He's very good in the role, playing Vos as a well-meaning monster who loves his family and genuinely believes he's on the side of right ('23 million blacks to 3 million whites,' he says. 'We're the underdogs. We're the ones under attack'), but it's hard to get past the fact that he's Tim Robbins. No matter how good he is, he's still the guy from 'Bull Durham' whose politics were lampooned in 'Team America.'

Still, as a political thriller, 'Catch a Fire' is top-notch, persuasively illustrating how systemized oppression by an occupying totalitarian authority ultimately leads to violent revolution - a timely object lesson, albeit one that should be fairly obvious.

Noyce sells what could have been a strident, self-righteous message by making his film deeply human and absolutely stunning visually, with cinematographer Ron Fortunato finding abject beauty in the arid South African landscape.

Noyce deserves high marks for not only telling the story from the inside (rather than from the point of view of a white outside protagonist), but also for not letting anyone - including Chamusso - come off as entirely heroic. No one is entirely good or bad here, making the story all the more personal and compelling.

- Dawn Taylor

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