Mountain Prayers

In his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, Orson Welles was able to sum up the theme of his entire film with five or six dissolve shots in the opening seconds of the movie. Director Darrell James Roodt accomplishes the same feat in the opening seconds of Cry, the Beloved Country with one shot of a cross on top of a church.

The next 108 minutes are a deeply touching narrative dramatizing a story of sin and forgiveness. Cry, the Beloved Country is a haunting cinematic poem, poignant and profound, heartbreaking, and uplifting.

The plot of the film centers on Rev. Stephen Kumalo (James Earl Jones), a Zulu Anglican priest, a contemporary Job whose faith is greatly tested by the crosses he must bear because of tragedies that afflict his family. Kumalo is on an odyssey from his countryside parish in South Africa to Johannesburg to find his sister (Dambisa Kente), son (Eric Miyeni), and brother (Charles S. Dutton).

The real odyssey is spiritual as Kumalo’s trust in God is tested by what has befallen his family in Johannesburg. Kumalo’s brother has become an irreligious political agitator, and his sister has become a prostitute. Most heartbreaking of all, Kumalo’s son, Absalom, in a failed robbery attempt has killed Arthur Jarvis, a man whose life was dedicated to helping South Africans. Arthur’s father, James Jarvis (Richard Harris), is a white supremacist who lives in the country not far from Kumalo’s church, though the two never meet until after Absalom is sentenced to hang.

The visual motif of the cross expressed in the opening seconds of the film is continued throughout. Two scenes are especially touching because in them the cross is linked to the sacraments. The first links the cross to confession. In his wanderings through Johannesburg, Kumalo has been helped by Rev. Theophilus Msimangu (Vusi Kunene) a much younger Anglican priest. Sitting together in a room with a cross on the wall behind Kumalo, Theophilus confesses that he is going to give up all his worldly possessions and live a life of prayer so that a fear deep in his heart may not become a fact. He fears that when the white man finally turns to love, the black man will have turned to hate. Kumalo says that on the morning his son is hanged he will go to the mountain to pray, as he did to overcome a great temptation to adultery.

The other scene links the cross to baptism. Seeking refuge from a rainstorm, Jarvis enters Kumalo’s church while the priest is moving basins and pans around trying to combat the leaks in the roof. As Jarvis first stands talking to Kumalo he is pelted by the rain coming through the roof. He moves away to sit on one side of the church, but he is still doused by the rain, while Kumalo sits on the opposite side of the church. Roodt shoots the scene so that during Jarvis’s “baptism” the crucifix behind the altar is seen between Jarvis and Kumalo. The hands of Christ are shown stretching out as though reaching to pull the two men together. Three close-ups of a basin on the altar catching rain underline the baptismal meaning.

The acting of the lead characters, played by Jones and Harris, is superb but understated. Everyone in this carefully paced film seems content to contribute to the overall impact of the film.

There is a magnificent montage in the closing moments of the film. Shots of young Kumalo being led to the hangman’s noose are intercut with shots of his father climbing the mountain to pray. James Jarvis meets Kumalo on the mountain and tells him that he wishes to pay for the rebuilding of the church and wishes that a memorial to Arthur be present in the church. Grace draws good from the evil of racism even as Absalom is being executed. Christ’s body is healed and rebuilt, both symbolically in the new church building and spiritually in the two fathers.

Roodt ends the film with a marvelous panning aerial shot of Kumalo kneeling in prayer on a mountaintop. The shot is reminiscent of the famous shot of Julie Andrews in the mountains at the beginning of The Sound of Music, but Roodt’s camera is almost reverent as it focuses on Kumalo kneeling in a sea of grass against a gorgeous background of mist-laden mountains. Though Kumalo seems dwarfed by the surroundings, somehow this kneeling man of faith towers above everything.


  • Rev. Robert E. Lauder

    Rev. Robert E. Lauder is a Brooklyn diocesan priest and professor of philosophy at St. John's University, Jamaica, New York.

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