Moffie, the new film from South African director Oliver Hermanus, looks at how bigotry under apartheid takes form in many ways, all a type of repulsive machismo. While racial bigoty during this time has been explored, Moffie looks at sexuality. In a time where conformity was policed and military service mandatory, homophobia was rampant.
The film focuses on Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer), a gentle boy whose service hits in 1981 when he turns 18. Before active service, Nicholas must endure eight months of training where he is dehumanized. The film is structured not unlike Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. The first half is the brutal barracks where Nicholas is stripped of nearly everything to become a soldier. The second half involves his service and return home.
Early on there is a scene that speaks to the control Hermanus has over the film. Before Nicholas ships off, his father gives him a nudie magazine of naked women as a parting gesture. At first, we think it is a moment to show the reach of a certain bigotted viewpoint but then his father says "For ammunition." It is a deeply felt moment as we realize his dad knows Nicholas is gay and is about to have to hide that as deep as possible from others. This scene is punctuated later is a brilliant flashback to Nicholas's childhood where he is caught at a public pool watching another man shower. An outraged father attacks Nicholas until his parents whisk him away to safety.
It is clear that while Nicholas may have an understanding from his parents about who he is, he still has to hide a part of himself from that moment on. While in training, he develops feeling for a fellow recruit named Stassen (Ryan de Villiers). During an outdoor drill one wet night, the two are thrown together in a ditch. What happens between them is left a mystery but Nicholas is changed from it. You can tell this is his first contact with another gay man, someone who shares his need to hide things.
Moffie does a great job balancing Nicholas's journey with the culture he is stuck in. He is forced into being a soldier, forced into a situation to lose his innocence, and watches other men around him succumb to violence and drugs to deal with the situation. Brummer is terrific in the lead role. His face holds such internal tension within it that we are always aware of what he is hiding. The film's final moments are a bit deflating if not realistic. However, what comes before that is an empathetic look at homophobia and the ways it can afflict a country with a toxic patriarchal psyche.