Sunday, 10 October 2010

TROUBLE IN PARADISE: Exploring crime, compassion and 'City of God' in Storm Saulter’s 'Better Mus’ Come'

To be poor is a crime…

With his exuberant masterpiece City of God (2002), filmmaker Fernando Mereilles transports viewers from across the globe into one of the world’s most dangerous and notorious slums, a place in Brazil called City of God, where only the brave dare set foot and young men are quite fortunate if they make it to their 21st birthday.

A gripping story based on true events, the film chronicles the life of a young man who grew up on the hardscrabble streets of Rio de Janeiro and whose ambition as a photographer may be his only way to a better life. But the element of the overall story that perhaps connected most with viewers is the touching, poignant love story at the heart of the tale. A sort of love set among the squalor and ruins scenario.

Fast-forward close to a decade later, thousands of miles across the seas, to a small island washed by the Caribbean Sea, where the gripping new film Better Mus’ Come (Firefly Films) from ascendant filmmaker Storm Saulter is not only provoking viewers but already earning well-deserved comparisons to Mereilles’ classic.

Set in Jamaica’s turbulent 1970s, Better Mus’ Come tells the story of Ricky (Sheldon Shepherd), a young man, a charismatic gang leader, who grew up on the hardscrabble, deadly streets of central Kingston and whose ambition for a better life for himself and his young son keeps him motivated to escape the hardships of his surroundings. Amidst the gritty politics, harsh poverty and unrelenting gun violence and bloodshed emerges a touching, if tepid, romance between Ricky and the beautiful, long-limbed Kemala (Nicole Grey) that both appeals and adds a layer of warmth and civility to the otherwise raw and riveting main story.

Yes, the echoes of City of God (as well as South Africa’s Academy Award-winning Tsotsi and even Jamaica’s own masterpiece The Harder They Come) are undeniable. The similarities are indeed striking (Saulter is, after all, a student of the masters), but in the end Better Mus’ Come stands robustly on its own as a significant individual achievement. Storm Saulter doesn’t necessarily break new ground with his new film, a very long time in the coming, but he has written and directed a fully engrossing, well-acted and satisfying movie that represents a worthy new entry into the canon of Jamaican films that matter.

Examining struggle, crime, hopelessness and the ugly scourge of politics, Better Mus’ Come offers audiences a compelling lead character and meaty storylines, all wrapped up in an exotic, completely relatable package. Many of the film’s scenes are brutal but riveting, and the movie itself seems to grow in intensity, despite the momentary lapses, as it builds towards a startling conclusion. Much to the viewer’s amazement, the gun violence is laid on thick but with a steady directorial hand that keeps the film from wallowing in the largely senseless bloodshed it seems to condemn.

In the central male role, Shepherd is outstanding as the conflicted hero of the narrative – a strong team leader, a sensitive lover and a superb father. With his astonishing six-pack and sublimely toned physique (much to the delight of female viewers), the actor shares believable chemistry with Grey (who displays talent and promise), and gets solid support from Everaldo Creary as the comical Shortman and Ricardo Orgill, who seems a natural fit for the ruthless thug Flames.

The film also features much-welcomed appearances from Roger Guenver Smith and Karl Williams (who both play rival politicians), and delightful cameos from the legendary Carl Bradshaw and The Mystic Revealers’ Billy Wilmot, who both ably portray spiritual advisors. Musician Wayne Armond provides a moody, soulful score.

In transporting his audience back to the gun-and-gangs era of the 1970s, Saulter seems to challenge his viewers to ponder whether things have truly gotten better on Jamaica’s socio-political landscape since. Has better come? The varied responses should make for exciting debate.

Steeped in great intensity and moments of intrigue, Better Mus’ Come’s greatest achievement is perhaps its vivid demonstration of how forces (political and otherwise) can divide and destroy, how the resilience of the human spirit can shape our life experiences and the significant role love often plays in the resolution of one’s destiny.

A film local and international audiences will enjoy, Better Mus’ Come is, in essence, a powerful socio-political statement, an inspired and ambitious undertaking, that questions authority, entertains and provokes thought. I can’t wait to see it again. Tyrone's Verdict: B+

MUST-SEE: Better Mus’ Come opens in cinemas nationwide Wednesday, October 13. Go support good Jamaican cinema.