Freeze Frame #148: Invictus

Twice last year that I know of, films were made about real life sporting greatness and the men who made it so. Both films focused not so much on the sportsman/men but on the ones who inspired them to greatness. But the more interesting commonality was that they were both set in situations that could have — almost certainly would have — involved some ugliness, but  concentrated on the goodness.Whatever tensions there are, they are left offscreen for the most part.

More than in The Blind Side, this is especially true of Invictus, a film about the South African rugby team winning the world cup soon after the end of apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s ascension to the post of President. If you wish to watch a film about whites and blacks overcoming racial tension and working together to win a trophy, Remember the Titans might be a better, more dramatic choice for you. This one, while it acknowledges the bitterness that has seeped into the black consciousness of South Africa, looks at a bunch of folks who approach the now-destroyed walls between the races with a little more openness.

Is it plausible that this tiny bubble of goodness would have existed without the harsh realities of post-apartheid South Africa assaulting it with a million pinpricks? Maybe not. But is it plausible that such a bubble would have existed? I think so. And maybe it is fair that a film gives them the space that real life might not have.

Chief among the men approaching the divide with outstretched arms is Nelson Mandela (played magnificently by Morgan Freeman), whose agenda is as much about rebuilding his country as it is about reconciliation with his former subjugators. He sees the rugby team — cherished by the whites and reviled by the blacks — as a means to that end. Their captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) is his instrument.

I wonder about Pienaar. When he first met Mandela, was he already convinced of the goodness of the man before him, or did he, like so many others, arrive a skeptic and return a convert? Certainly he is astonished by the man’s capacity for forgiveness. At one point, he wonders: I was thinking how a man could spend thirty years in prison, and come out and forgive the men who did it to him.

In any case, he rallies his underperforming team around him and gets them to aspire to greatness. Some of them are not as welcoming of Mandela (for that matter, even Mandela’s supporters are leery of his conciliatory efforts), but with Pienaar’s encouragement, they slowly come around. One of the most touching moments in the film comes when he takes his team on an impromptu trip to Robben Island. Pienaar enters Mandela’s cell for a moment to get a sense of what his life must have been like. It is a small room, barely the width of a man with his arms outstretched. From the window, one can see the working yard where Mandela must have had to toil along with his fellow prisoners. And while he tries to take it all in, he is reminded of a poem by William Ernest Henley that Mandela mentioned to him in their first conversation, and sent to him in a letter:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

In some ineffable way, that was probably the moment when Francois Pienaar really began to understand the man he admired. Or at least began to understand that he would never really understand.

ps: Hearing that poem recited by Morgan Freeman, in that wise deep voice of his, is among the finest pleasures the film has to offer. But as much as it brought home Mandela’s spirit, it also reminded me of a moment in The Shawshank Redemption, where the prisoners stand listening to opera. The music in Mandela’s head must’ve been turned up to 11.

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