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Invictus
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Invictus – Review

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In 1994, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) wins historic elections and becomes the first black president of South Africa, a county that is plagued by poverty and crime, and is boiling in animosity and mistrust between blacks and whites. His first and immediate challenge is balancing black aspiration with white fear.

With the country poised to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela seizes the opportunity to unify his people by rallying them behind the Afrikaans Rugby team, the Springboks.

The Springboks, however, are a failing team, loathed by the blacks, who are eager to dismantle them because they embody the apartheid regime. Unrelenting, Mandela invites the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to his office and tells him to ready his team to win the Rugby World Cup.

The team of white Afrikaaners train around the clock and, reluctantly, tour the country, introducing themselves and the game to the blacks in the townships.

Mandela closely follows the team’s progress and religiously watches every game, as he rallies the people behind it.

Mandela’s gamble pays off. The people of South Africa, black and white, coalesce in their support for their rugby team as it miraculously rises from mediocrity to victory, beating the best teams in the world and winning the World Cup.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

“Invictus”, which means “unconquered”, is the title of a short poem by the British poet William Ernest Henley. Mandela used to recite it to himself while locked in prison. He tells Francois Pienaar that the poem propelled him to stand when all he wanted to do is to lie down. “Invictus”, the film, is truly as inspiring and uplifting as the poem itself.

The film opens on the day of Mandela’s release from prison. When his motorcade drives past soccer-playing blacks, they stop and cheer, but on the other side of the fence, rugby-playing whites jeer as their manager exclaims, “This is the terrorist Mandela. This is the day our country went to the dogs.” At that moment, it’s hard to believe that one day this terrorist would unite this ruptured nation.

It’s an incredible story that only an icon with the charm, wisdom and sagacity of Nelson Mandela could turn into reality. He was faced with mistrustful white minority who control the army, the economy and the government, on one hand, and the vengeful black majority with untamed aspirations, on the other. Alienating either of the groups, the country would crumble and descend into violent chaos.

Against all the odds, he exploits a divisive team, the Springboks, to bring unity and a brutal game, Rugby, to inspire harmony. The whites, who despise him, learn to admire him and the blacks, who doubt him, learn to trust him. Eventually, both sides unite behind his leadership and cheer their national rugby team all the way to winning the 1995 world cup. And in the final scene, blacks and whites, exhilaratingly embrace each other as they celebrate their team’s victory.

The film takes us to Mandela’s stifling cell in Robin Island. In spite of languishing 27 years of his life in there, with minimal human contact, he doesn’t come out bitter, angry or vengeful. Instead, he promotes forgiveness, restraint and harmony.

As he does to his people, Mandela charms us with his cheerful personality, inspires us with his poetic words and soothes us with his calm demeanour. However, the film does not get us any closer to Mandela the mortal. He is presented as an infallible divine figure, without any personal conflicts. We learn nothing about his turbulent relationships with his wife, kids or even friends.

In fact, none of the characters in the film have any meaningful emotional journey. We don’t learn about François Pienaar’s personal life either or his perspective on apartheid or racial divisions, other than his commitment to his Rugby team.

The only character that goes through an emotional journey is actually the nation of South Africa, which ascends from the abyss of hate and mistrust among its racially-divided people to the path of unity and harmony.

The film is about rugby as much as it’s about South Africa. The game consumes a lot of screen time – of course, at the expense of character development. The rugby matches, nonetheless, are thrilling and fun to watch.

Morgan Freeman, who was reportedly recommended by Mandela to play this part, rises to the challenge of portraying this iconic figure. He projects serenity, leadership and sagacity, but occasionally falters with the accent. Matt Damon delivers an impeccable Afrikaans accent, and in spite of his smaller figure, he is puffed up enough to convince as a rugby player.

The film was shot in real locations in South Africa, which lends it a sense of authenticity and reality. However, CGI and visual effect technology was utilized to fill the stadiums with cheering crowds in the rugby matches scenes.

This is a touching story about bigger-than-life characters, compelling history, racial divisions and human connection. In spite of his sentimental approach, Clint Eastwood enlightens and thrills us with his masterly story telling technique.

Opens Nationwide on 5nd February 2010

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