Athol Fugard’s play “Boesman and Lena” is brought to the screen in this adaptation by John Berry. Bringing his prowess as a stage director to this work, the dialogue-driven story delivers brilliant performances from Angela Bassett (“What’s Love Got to Do With It?”) and Danny Glover (“Beloved”). Set against the backdrop of the desolate mud flats outside Cape Town, South Africa, it is a tale of loss and survival during that nation’s period of apartheid.
The film begins with a black-and-white flashback of bulldozers destroying the shantytown that Boesman (Glover) and Lena (Bassett) inhabited. As they have been forced to do many times before, the two push on, setting up another temporary camp that will provide meager shelter and set the stage for a night of realizations and reconstructions. As Boesman erects a lean-to from scavenged materials, Lena rebuilds her past hoping to discover the key to how it all went wrong. Lena struggles to unearth these happier images, making a map of the places they’ve traveled with pots and pans she embeds in the earth. This quest poses a threat to Boesman’s control over Lena, and to her frustration, he rearranges the landmarks until she is in utter confusion. Somewhere in the long scorching days and cold nights, the once affectionate man has become a beast of burden lashing out at his partner with verbal and physical violence.
At the height of Lena’s hysteria, an old black man (kaffir, as Boesman calls him) is discovered by the riverside. Over Boesman’s protests, Lena entreats the man to join their party. In the old man, Lena is given the chance to retell her tale. It matters little for Lena that a language barrier exists between her and the Xhosa tribesman. She now has another “pair of eyes” to bear witness to her story and provide the empirical proof of her existence that she so desperately seeks. At the breaking point, the old man could be the tinder for Lena’s sense of strength to be reborn and tie her and Boesman together again.
The film retains nearly all the content of Fugard’s play with the brilliant dialogue deftly acted by Bassett and Glover. Special attention is given to Lena in this adaptation as Bassett responds in kind, giving her best performance since receiving an Oscar nod for “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” She creates in Lena a woman struggling to recapture a past to save herself and Boesman. Repulsion over the South African policy of apartheid and its effects on an entire population of people drives this conscientious film. Though that era is officially over, the consequences live beyond it with the social condition of the nation’s poor, huddled masses.
A striking film, “Boesman and Lena” forces us to deal with these notions of social class. I would highly encourage anyone to bear witness to this moving film.
“Boes and Lena” screens on Sunday, May 20, at 7:30 p.m. at Campbell Gall. $6 general public, $5 students.