A review of “Nowhere in
Africa” by Jeanne Aufmuth
Rating: Not rated, but
should be PG-13 for mild violence and sexuality. In German and Swahili with English subtitles
hours, 21 minutes
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.
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.
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.
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.