Set in South Africa in the early 1980s, Moffie follows Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer), who dutifully leaves home to serve a mandatory stretch of military service as required of all white men over 16-year-old at the time.
The title of the film comes from the Afrikaans derogatory term for gay men.
Nicholas is shipped off to boot camp where life is brutal, bleak, and harsh. As he and his fellow grunts prepare to defend the Apartheid regime from a conflict at the Angolian border, Nicholas contends with survival in an environment that reeks of toxic racism, homophobia and machismo.
All while quietly coming to terms with his burgeoning homosexuality.
As we’ve seen in previous military movies, the new recruits’ basic training is humiliating and violent on both physical and psychological levels.
Drill Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser) takes the hyper-masculine environment to levels reminiscent of R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket.
The direction by Oliver Hermanus is taut and sensitive as he artfully plays elements of the film against each other.
During a barracks game of ‘spin the bottle’ where those chosen by fate must fight for the entertainment of the other soldiers, Hermanus offers a classical fugue as sonic soundscape in contrast with the bare-knuckle brawling.
Throughout the film, Hermanus deftly balances scenes of war and brutal machismo with momentary touches of intimacy and humanity. The screenplay (by Hermanus and Jack Sidey) displays an economy of dialogue allowing the actors to express achingly tender moments of sensitivity.
In one episode where the soldiers are forced to dig (and then sleep) in trenches during a nighttime downpour, Nicholas’s fellow grunt Dylan Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) convinces him to huddle together under a blanket to keep warm. While the moment leads to a mere brush of Stassen’s hand on Nicholas’s face, the sexual tension is palpable.
Brummer is especially impressive in his first major screen role offering a compelling and continually nuanced performance.
Additionally, the riveting score by Braam du Toit and gorgeous cinematography by Jamie Ramsay become almost full-fledged characters in the film’s storytelling.
I’ll warn readers that the beginning of the film can be difficult to watch as Hermanus sets the tone and emotional scale of harsh journey ahead. Ultimately, the film – built on testosterone, tension, and trauma – resolves with a surprisingly delicate touch.
The BAFTA nominated film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2019 and was released in South Africa two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic closed cinemas there.