WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
For Ella (24), the death of her alcoholic father leaves her with nothing but debt and the bitter memory of a complicated past. Abandoned by her mother at a young age, she has sacrificed her life, opportunities and love to care for a man she resents, but is now left adrift in the world after his passing. The re-emergence of her nomadic godfather, Neo (46), at her father’s cremation, gives Ella the opportunity to discover a better future for herself in Johannesburg. She also decides that she will bury his ashes at her childhood home in Jo’burg.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Another South African film with a central female character, Farewell Ella Bella feels somewhat like the kind of film you have to watch in high school during Life Orientation that warns you about the dangers of alcohol. While it explores themes of loss and acceptance of other people's and your own faults, it overplays the alcoholism angle so much that it actually loses its sincerity, almost wagging a finger at the audience. It felt more like a student film than something from a studio.
Ella's father has passed away after succumbing to the fatal side-effects of alcoholism, and her godfather (who’s also an alcoholic) takes her on a trip up to Johannesburg to bury his ashes at his old home. On the way, they meet various characters - some new and some old friends - as Ella processes her conflicting feelings about her loss.
The film also explores the struggle of women and the pain caused by the men in their lives - or even tormented by the pain they've caused - just in time for Women's Month. Two are jilted by husbands and lovers, a father that couldn't give up his poison for his daughter and a mother trying to right the wrongs of her past. The plot isn't as important as the emotions of the characters, and in terms of the realities of every-day South Africans, it makes a good representation. However, there was a certain heaviness to the dialogue that didn't seem to gel so well with the actors trying to make it sound natural, as if it was a stage play instead of an on-screen performance.
Director and writer Lwazi Mvusi had a good film in her grasp, but just could not quite get there. The audience struggles to feel engaged by the story and while the emotions are intense and certain characters somewhat likeable, there lacked a star quality that would have made the film more watchable, despite Jan Anstey and Sello Maake Ka-Ncube's best efforts. The chemistry between them was missing and most of their interactions felt forced and lacklustre.
However, I was impressed with the mixing of the different South African identities in the film. It's neither a 'black' or 'white' film with a mix of languages, but it doesn't become blind to certain social prejudices and racial stereotypes that are unique to our local climate. A white girl walking around in a township is quickly called out, and an Afrikaans bed and breakfast tannie tries to hide her assumptions of Ella and her godfather's relationship - but these characters do not become defined by their prejudices either.
One can appreciate what Farewell Ella Bella was trying to accomplish - a strong female-focused story within a strong local context with certain moral overtones - but unfortunately it was so focused on conveying a righteous message that it forgot that it was supposed to be engaging to an audience. I wouldn't dismiss Mvusi just yet though, as I do believe she has the makings of a good director, but still needs to polish her style.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: