Katinka Heyns is one of South Africa's finest filmmakers, and her 1998 film "Paljas" is an enchanting, if drawn-out, fable of hope overcoming prejudice. Set in the heartland of the Karoo (the lunar semi-desert that sprawls across South Africa's interior) it chronicles the tale of the Afrikaans-speaking Macdonald family whose conservative beliefs are thrown into turmoil when a touring circus pays their isolated village a visit. ("Paljas" is an Afrikaans word that doesn't quite translate into English, but denotes "enchantment".)
Heyns' film is remarkable for its warm yet unaffected simplicity. Paljas is essentially a domestic drama and Heyns assembled a superlative cast of local actors to effect this in a beautifully understated way. Marius Weyers is excellent as the long-suffering, widowed patriarch, and there are some astonishing set-pieces between the family members. The Karoo landscape is beautifully shot and utilized perfectly, as it quietly undulates between forbidding wasteland and Norman Rockwellian heartland.
Although the film has its faults (it would have benefited from some judicious editing) there are moments of pure poetry, and Paljas should be essential viewing for any connoisseur of independent/foreign film. One only hopes that we will be seeing more of Heyns' work in the future, and, indeed, better distribution for this hard-to-come-by screen gem.
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