Premiering in the Discovery section at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, Five Fingers for Marseilles transplants the traditional western genre out of its element. A decade ago at TIFF, director Takashi Miike brought the spaghetti western over to Japan in Sukiyaki Western Django. For Five Fingers, director Michael Matthews guides his narrative through colonized South Africa.
Set in Marseilles, which rests in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, we’re immediately introduced to the ‘five fingers’ – a handful of children, living in this poverty-stricken town. Even at a young age, these kids are fully aware of the circumstances around them. Marseilles remains stricken by a limbo of apartheid legislation. And while there’s much transpiring in Marseilles, the kids realize how other local towns like Roma and Barcelona ultimately affect them as well. These cities were also given European names after the colonization.
Five Fingers sets the stage of a nearly 20-minute prologue. Our six (for now) main characters have an unfortunate run-in with local white rule. When one of the girls, Lerato is about to be seized, the kids strike back hurling eggs at their oppressors. Tau ends up fleeing Marseilles for 20 years, resulting in a difficult journey for himself. After years of finding himself on the wrong side of the law, Tau (Vuyo Dabula) returns to his home, only to find that matters have not gotten better. Without eliminating the current threat, Tau won’t be able to achieve any sort of peace. He’s more reluctant as an adult, shedding the naïve mantle of hero.
Each of the main characters are better associated by their monikers. For example, Tau is the lion, fierce and mean, while Unathi is a more reserved pastor and storyteller. The other members of the ‘five fingers’ can each be described as “the leader,” “the heart and soul,” “the broken one” and “the rich kid.” The characterizations do limit who they are within the film, more specifically when they grow up. Whether they be for good or bad, they’re defined by those names. As we spend time with them as adults, we begin to understand how this all unfolds.
Director Matthews and screenwriter Sean Drummond concentrate much of the film’s energy on Dabula’s Tau. We understand that he’s not going to be able to move the needle greatly in corrupted Marseilles. However, if he can rid the town of the villainous Ghost, that may be sufficient enough. With the claws of corruption deep with Marseilles, there’s not much one can do expecting miracles overnight. Then again, Dabula’s standout performance works wonders in conveying the overall plight.
Five Fingers plays to many of the themes of your typical spaghetti western, while carving out its own identity in the process. It’s simply not a showdown between good cowboy and bad cowboy. Director Matthews and screenwriter Drummond seem to know their way around the genre to make it much more dynamic. There are many more layers at work under the surface. It’s as if we’re going into the wild frontier, yet paying respect to the past.
Where Five Fingers succeeds immensely is with its jaw-dropping photography. Cinematographer Shaun Harley Lee executes the look of the film with such seamless precision. And while we are peering into the rough landscape of South Africa, the compositions are a clear and welcoming throwback to the genre.
Despite not shying away from being a rougher, tougher western of its predecessors, Five Fingers is a remarkably bold addition to the neo-western genre. Matthews has crafted a riveting feature-length debut and certainly has a bright future ahead.