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Friday, December 14, 2018

THE COMEDIANS -- DVD Review by Porfle

As a bad-movie fan, I've seen some obscure stuff. But THE COMEDIANS (Indiepix Films, 1984) is such an obscure, oddball oddity that it not only isn't on IMDb, but I couldn't even find it on the website of the company that released it on DVD.

It's one of the South African apartheid-era films made for black audiences who weren't allowed access to mainstream cinema.  Once on the verge of being lost (many already are), these films are being preserved and restored for posterity and released through Indiepix Films' "Retro Afrika" series.

Like the rest of the ones I've seen, THE COMEDIANS is a no-budget affair assembled from the most meager resources. But while the filmmakers' talents often transcend low budgets and sparse conditions on other titles, this one is about as crude as it gets, making even MANOS: HANDS OF FATE look almost lavish in comparison.

It stars Hector Mathanda, the most familiar face I've yet encounted in these South African films (he was also in FISHY STONES, UMBANGO, and GONE CRAZY) and by far the most talented actor. The gap-toothed comic is a natural performer and seems entirely at ease in front of the camera, delivering his lines with a loose improvisational style that's often quite funny. (He even refers to himself as "Hector" in one scene.)

He stars here as Mr. Bono, a con man who convinces his straight-arrow friend Mr. Slu to lend him his magic ring (we never find out where it came from or how Mr. Slu gained possession of it) in order to heal his sick wife, Pretty.

Bono, of course, wants the ring in order to amass ill-gotten wealth, a big house, and fancy cars, and even tries to use it to make his wife even prettier (which backfires with amusing results).

His entire plan ends up backfiring after he hires a gang of young toughs to break into Mr. Slu's house and rob him blind, including, presumably, his magic ring.  What happens after Mr. Slu gets wise to the scheme forms the satisfying conclusion to the story.

Till then, though, we get to watch Hector Mathanda perform the most comically craven, greedy, and egotistical character imaginable to his heart's content, dominating the film entirely and apparently having a wonderful time doing so.

Even the amateur-level supporting cast get into their roles and act as adequate straight men for Hector.  Once the big plan goes awry and all of his hired minions end up destitute and in rags (literally), they launch into a surprising acapella song lamenting their fate as they skulk through the ruins of their crumbling shacks.  It's a wonderfully unusual moment.

Technically, THE COMEDIANS is rock-bottom stuff that would get a D-minus if submitted as a student film.  At times you may find yourself wondering if the cameraman even bothered to look through his viewfinder--it's only through sheer luck that he manages to keep the actors in frame, and he often gets lost looking for them.

While many of director-photographer Japie Van Der Merwe's takes are amazingly long, mostly extended master shots without a cut, the actors seem to have the script memorized enough to at least ad-lib their way through it all without a pause.

Hector Mathanda, of course, is in his element here, reveling in his character's bald-faced deceit as he brags to his hired lackeys about such American friends as Michael Jackson, Dionne Warwicke, George Foreman, and even President Ronald Reagan, and pretending to chat with them over the phone.

The film gives us an interesting look at everyday surburban life in South Africa and what was considered upper and lower class among its residents. But mainly it's a fascinating example of utterly artless, basic, primitive-level filmmaking.

Some will have no desire to watch a single frame, while others (including myself) will wish it could go on for another hour or more.  THE COMEDIANS is a cinematic artifact like few others you'll ever see.

Format: Color, NTSC, 3:2, Stereo
Language: Zulu
Subtitles: English
Number of discs: 1
Rated: NR
Studio: Indiepix Films
Run Time: 87 minutes
Extras: Trailer


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