Life, Above All (Blu-ray)
Foreign films are a dicey venture in the United States. While some capture the hearts and minds of viewers (like CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON) they are just as likely to fail for one simple reason – subtitles. I worked for a few years in a video rental store, and nothing turns away the “joe-average movie viewer” like telling him that the movie is not in English. I understand that it takes a bit more concentration to watch and read the subtitles, I do. But blindly turning away from a movie for this reason alone means that you are going to miss some gems… gems like LIFE, ABOVE ALL. This isn’t a perfect movie, but it is an inspiring and universal tale about familial relationships when dealing with very tough times.
LIFE, ABOVE ALL is based on the book Chanda’s Secrets and tells the story of a small family in the heart of South Africa. They live in a small village where everyone knows each other’s secrets and gossip is the way people judge each other. Our main character is Chanda, a young girl who lives with her mother Lillian and half siblings Soly and Iris. As the movie opens, Chanda is leaving the house to go to the doctor as her mother sits on the end of the bed with a baby in her arms. The baby is Chanda’s littlest sister, Sarah, and she has just died. Her mother’s husband Jonah is the baby’s father, but he rarely comes around (and when he does it is only to steal money from Lillian). To make matters worse, Jonah openly blames Lillian for Sarah’s death.
As Lillian spirals downward, her health fails and Chanda has to shoulder more and more responsibility. Her only help comes her friend Esther, a young woman who’s parents disappeared after they got ‘the bug’. The community turned against Esther; even Lillian’s best friend Mrs. Tafa (who owns the house and has helped the family through many tough times) believes that Esther is bringing shame to the entire community being in their home. Chanda challenges the beliefs of her community and the way they sweep everything bad under the rug, but will this attitude bring the family and friends together or destroy their lives?
I enjoyed this movie mostly thanks to the performances and the universality of the story. Khomotso Manyaka, a first time actress, brings quiet strength to the role of Chanda. Even when she is almost ready to give up, Chanda’s resolve and love for her family keeps her together. The movie focuses on Chanda’s relationships with her mother (which is the foundation of the movie), Esther, and Mrs. Tafa. Director Oliver Schmitz (Paris, Je T’Aime), a South African native, directs this intimate story deftly and with class. The gossip culture is just as relevant in a large town in the U.S. as it is in this small African community. The only issues for me are with the editing and resulting overall pacing of the film. This may be intentional and another example of our cultural differences but at times it is just painful to watch. Overall, though, I recommend this foreign gem.
Video: (1080p, 2.35:1 Widescreen) The video quality is surprisingly sharp for a film that feels this independent.
Audio: (English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1) The sound is very well done and the dialogue is always clear.
The Making of Life, Above All (14:09) This short featurette gives an overview of the making of the movie, including the challenges of shooting in a foreign language.
The disc also contains the original Theatrical Trailer (02:07) for the film.