Eye For Film >> Movies >> Material (2012) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
A proud patriarch keen to hand on the family business. A wayward son with ambitions of his own. It's a familiar set-up that we've seen played out in any number of circumstances, yet this gentle South African comedy drama has a distinctive character that has seen it become a massive hit on home ground. At its heart of questions of identity that go much deeper then the familiar intergenerational clash, yet it's delivered with a light touch that will make it a winner with a wide range of audiences.
Riaad Moosa is Cassim, young enough to remain the family errand-boy yet old enough for aunties to whisper about his marriage prospects and worry he'll be left on the shelf. He's patient with what life has handed him, being what most parents would consider a good boy, but he has just a little too much joie de vivre to be content forever in his father's fabric shop. That's if the business survives, as the aging Ebrahim's refusal to modernise means he's gradually running it into the ground. When Cassim visits a stand-up comedy club with a friend, a turn at the mike changes everything. His unexpected success leads to a proposition from the club owner, but can he combine a promising new career with pleasing a father who insists too much laughter is haram? And what will happen when Ebrahim discovers that his son is using the shop - and the family - for comic material?
There are few surprises in the central story, with its themes of personal liberation, forgiveness and love conquering all, but this is part of the film's point, as it makes a case for the possibility of union beween the contemporary and traditional worlds. For Cassim, there is no inherent conflict between his comedy and his Muslim faith - indeed, something of the joke is on him as a romantic subplot sees him fall into precisely the kind of behaviour he insists his community should move on from.
The stand-up comedy isn't really as strong as it needs to be and will leave those viewers already familiar with Muslim community humour wondering what the fuss is about - it's hard to see how it would really get anyone noticed in an increasingly aggressive club scene. But the film's edginess is elsewhere. Other comics exploring religious and racial issues through humour provide context that illuminates the tensions in South African society and the ways the younger generation is dealing with them. It seems appropriate that Cassim should find himself a novelty in the middle of this, given the historic experience of ethnically Indian communities in the country, where carefully established cultural boundaries minimised conflict with the government during the Apartheid era.
"My dad is one of those people who blames everything on the legacy of Apartheid," Cassim tells a laughing young audience in one of the film's pivotal scenes, ironically contextualising the story and illustrating the gulf of experience that separates the generations. He's charming, he's entertaining, but the film's power comes from Vincent Ebrahim's performance as his father, a man whose past deeds have left him broken and seemingly incapable of finding joy in life. Truth and reconciliation never reached this family. Hiding behind his strict observances, Ebrahim finds the world a terrifying place. It is the balance between this suffering and the comedy that gives the film depth and personality and rather more to say than the young performer.
If this sounds a bit heavier than you were hoping for, don't worry. The comedy isn't confined to the stage and, indeed, many of its funnier moments hinge on Cassim's social blundering and slapstick - you won't see Battleship Potemkin or The Untouchables the same way again. Ultimately, though there isn't much new material here, it's held together by strong threads that haven't lost their lustre.Reviewed on: 09 Nov 2012