Judge Katie Herrell now knows what "good mourning" means. Hopefully, her next film will put new meaning into the phrase, "good evening."
"Have you ever wondered what it sounds like?"
A review excerpt on the DVD cover for Max and Mona claims the film is "[T]ruly South African Comedy." Having never knowingly seen another South African film, that characterization was meaningless to me pre-screening. Now, in the post-movie glow, I can only say that Max and Mona is one of the most unexpected and twisted comedic films that I have ever seen.
Facts of the Case
A South African "country bumpkin," Max, travels to the big city of Johannesburg to attend medical school. Upon leaving his farming village, he is asked to deliver a sacrificial wedding present, a goat whom he names Mona. Arriving in J-burg, confusion occurs and Max is a) unable to deliver the goat and b) unable to board at the medical school because he has said goat. He is forced to venture to his hard-drinking, gangster-involved Uncle Norman's house/bar. What unfolds is your typical drug-dealing, money-defaulting tale with a subplot of boy meets girl. But the odd presence of the goat, not to mention Max's unique talent as a "mourner" (he can evoke sobs from the tear-duct-less at funerals) makes this film truly unusual and must be part of what classifies this film as "[T]ruly South African Comedy."
The first two scenes of Max and Mona are amazing. Without any fanfare, we see Max lying in a coffin introducing himself and the movie, while presumably also showing the ending. Then the film cuts, quite literally, as a blackout screen chops apart the next scene—with the full blackout box moving off-screen in varying directions between portions of the action. Weaving between the blackout frames is a hobo-attired drunk who is ceremoniously struck by lightning.
As the movie progresses it never becomes apparent to me who the lighting rod is specifically or his significance to the film. What is apparent is the wonderful lighting job of the scene which makes the dusty landscape resemble a Polaroid still gathering its ink. Both introductory scenes also show the film's attention to sounds—and I'm not referring to the character's dialogue or even the music necessarily, although the latter is also excellent.
For the first half of this film, the background noise rules. We hear the thump-thump of the drunk man's leg, the bleating of Mona, the hum of a tractor, and even the blowing of the wind with clarity and power though not exaggeration. The dialogue itself—from an audio, not content, standpoint—is almost inaudible in comparison (during the first half of the movie only). The dialogue (thankfully augmented by subtitles) shifts between English, Tswana, Afrikaans, and Zulu—sometimes in mid-sentence—which causes its elusiveness.
The music throughout the film is an eclectic array of haunting funeral songs, songs similar to what was slave music in the U.S., and odd hip-hop/rap-esque beats. It is a finely crafted soundtrack which heightens the already high emotions throughout the film.
It's important that the audio quality is so high—and elements of the plot so unusual—because much of the movie is clichéd and tired. Johannesburg could be any big city and Max's Uncle Norman could be any money-grubbing drunk. In fact few of the character's are truly unique. Aside from Max and Mona. Oh, and the Blues Brother-esque funeral home director and his make-up artist son, who is like Hedwig from the transvestite film Hedwig and the Angry Itch.
The fact that Max is a gifted mourner (a talent he acquired from his grandfather) is the most unusual part of this film—aside from the ending, which I won't spoil. Apparently, the role of village mourner is quite lucrative, initially providing enough money for Max to attend medical school and then, quite literally, saves his uncle's ears. Basically, a mourner attends funerals, someone evokes the ancestors, and a lot of moaning and wailing ensues accompanied by an isolated windstorm. It is one of the oddest duties I have ever heard, but then I'm not from South Africa or any equally myth-believing place.
The other mythic element, and odd subplot of the film, is Mona, who turns out to be the village's sacred goat, and not a wedding present intended for sacrifice. Unfortunately, Mona is kidnapped about halfway through the film and only appears in compromising ransom photos.
Surprisingly the mythic elements work in this otherwise "reality"-based film. They make the clichéd portions more bearable and recapture your interest when it starts to wan, as it did for me at several times during the film.
The "Special Features" for Max and Mona are found in a PDF discussion guide which, while interesting, is not something I would really investigate unless I was teaching a class about the film. The "Film Aesthetics" section is illuminating as it explains how the main characters have their own "theme music": Max's theme is a combo guitar/harp/lute/trumpet. While statistics regarding the Republic of South Africa are included, the promised "Johannesburg Slang Glossary" is not. Other "Special Features" on the DVD are trailers and promotional stills from The Global Film Initiative, which Max and Mona was a part of in 2006.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Aside from the slow spots and the clichéd characters, my other complaint with this film is the actor's physical movements. There is exaggerated drunkenness and a spinning wedding-cake dropping scene which is likely taught in all acting workshops, judging by how often it swirls on-screen. The acting itself borders on good rather than bad, but with the nuanced attention to sound, I would have thought the same attention to detail might have been paid to the actor's on-screen movements.
Bottom line: This movie is hot oil on a skillet—as clichéd as that might be.
Guilty. It sounds like crazy.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Discussion guide
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