A review of “Nowhere in Africa” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: Not rated, but should be PG-13 for mild violence and sexuality.  In German and Swahili with English subtitles

Run Time: 2 hours, 21 minutes

 

 

Grand, sweeping, and very much in the moment, this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film is large in scope and swelling with sentiment.

The primary focus is on Regina (Lea Kurka), the refreshing child of a pair of upper-middle-class German Jews who see Hitler’s writing on the wall and escape to rural Kenya to manage a downtrodden farm.  Regina’s devoted lawyer dad (Merab Ninidze as Walter) travels on ahead, establishing friendly contacts with the African locals before mom (Juliane Köhler as Jettel) reluctantly journeys from her beloved Breslau (with Regina in tow) to join her husband on the remote East African plains.

The displacement is a difficult transition for Jettel.  Accustomed to the finer things in life, she bristles at the crude furniture, the financial strain and the relentless grit and grime.  But Regina embraces her adopted country’s culture with gusto, effortlessly integrating herself into the language and forging an intimate bond with the farm’s lanky cook, gentle Masai tribesman Owuor (Sidede Unyulo).  Ultimately Regina (the elder played by Karoline Eckertz) is sent to a private boarding school in town, leaving Walter and Jettel to adapt to their uncommon exile on their own.

When “Africa” devotes its narrative to Regina, it’s four-star perfection.  Both Kurka and the teenage Eckertz are beautiful, natural performers who embody the story’s changes and conflicts with instinctive aplomb. Kurka is an adorable charmer with heaps of childlike charisma.  The stilted relations between Ninidze and Köhler’s Walter and Jettel is a trickier mix, born of adult discord, jealousy, and resentment.

Sweeping African vistas, subtle cultural touches, and an achingly poignant score almost overshadow the more significant details of ugly politics (spelled out in alarming letters from Germany detailing deportations to death camps), adultery, and burgeoning confidence in the face of adversity.  The story, based on the best-selling autobiographical novel by Stephanie Zweig, has a lovely, far-reaching impact that mesmerizes as it quietly inspires.