South African cinema is still catching up to the diversity of the population it represents: a congregation of cultures, languages and religions that got ironed out in the popular imagination by the white supremacist politics of the apartheid era. The country’s significant Cape Muslim, or Cape Malay, population is one demographic that has traditionally received short shrift on screen, a context that makes Amy Jephta’s hearty, fractious family comedy “Barakat” more of a milestone than its relatively modest storytelling might suggest. Following four adult brothers upended by news of their widowed mother’s plans to remarry, the film may skirt cliché in its broad depiction of fragile masculinity versus women’s intuition, but ultimately thrives on its vivid social and linguistic particularities.
The first film by a woman of color ever to be selected as South Africa’s Oscar submission, “Barakat” (an Arabic word meaning “blessings,” though it also refers to a Cape Malay tradition of sharing food) has played a number of diasporic and African-specific international festivals, though it has primarily reached audiences at home and abroad through global streaming and in-flight programming. These ancillary channels hardly curb the impact of a film that is quietly televisual in aesthetic and narrative scope — if anything, it’s designed to be consumed in the same shared family spaces in which it’s predominantly set, shot with an affectionate eye for unglamorous domestic furnishings and surfaces.
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Though it darts around between the very separate lives of her four sons in its early stages, “Barakat” ultimately centers itself in the small, well-kept Cape Flats home of Aisha Davids (Vinette Ebrahim), a proud, straight-backed widow who appears to have taken grief in her stride, but is unwilling to live the rest of her life alone. Disagreements over her late husband’s business affairs have seeded lingering discord between her sons, alluded to in an elegantly edited opening sequence that uses Aisha’s dining table as a shifting locus for celebrations, funeral wakes and attendant arguments alike.
That doesn’t stop her insistently guilt-tripping them, however, into a family gathering for Eid al-Fitr, where she intends to surprise them with more than just a traditional fast-breaking feast of mince curry and yellow rice. The unexpected guest at the table is her new fiancé Albertus (Leslie Fong), a kindly doctor who happens not to be Muslim, and whose retiring presence the boys regard with a mutual hostility that initially overrides their own issues with each other.
Blustering Johannesburg-based businessman Zaid (Mortimer Williams) leads the charge, followed by propriety-minded married man Zunaid (Joey Rasdien) and cocky, shiftless playboy Nur (Danny Ross) — who may liberally sleep around himself, but whose social expectations turn austerely conservative when it comes to his mother. Only shambling academic Yaseen (Keeno Lee Hector), himself something of a family outlier, takes a more cautious stance, though he hardly rushes to poor Albertus’ defense either. Aisha finds more open sympathy from Zaid’s Black girlfriend Gwen (Bonnie Mbuli) and Zunaid’s pregnant, unhappy wife Ra-eesah (an excellent Quanita Adams), who’s harboring secret thoughts of divorce. Gender solidarity trumps cultural and personal differences in this extended family.
If the drama plays out in fairly expected ways, often drawing from a sitcom-like playbook of conflict and revolution, the pleasures of “Barakat” lie in its details, from its evocation of a swift community gossip mill beginning at the spice vendor to its tacit observation of the four brothers’ differing styles of dress when attending mosque — a spread of faith and agnosticism that goes undiscussed at this nominally religious family gathering. A well-regarded South African playwright, Jephta could stand to tease out the brothers’ individual personalities and problems at more leisure, but her zesty dialogue makes rich, witty use of the distinctive “Afrikaapse” dialect, with its fast, fluid overlapping of English and Afrikaans, emblematic of a popularly neglected culture that has grown up tall between others.
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