We don’t see a ton of genre films coming out of South Africa. In fact, ask your average horror fan to name another South African film besides District 9. See if they come up with one while keeping their cell phone in their pocket. But thanks to the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival, that may start to change. Number 37 presents a gritty, violent crime thriller set in the slums of Cape Town.
Director Nosipho Dumisa brings a new twist to a classic Hitchcockian-tale with her debut film. A wheelchair-bound tenant watches his neighbors through his courtyard-facing window using a set of binoculars. This familiar hook pays homage to the Hitchcock masterpiece Rear Window, and comparisons are bound to follow. However, Dumisa swaps out the thrill-seeking Jimmy Stewart for a recently paralyzed small-time gangster portrayed by Irshaad Ally. In a move that makes our voyeuristic protagonist, Randal, more relatable, his injury stems from an ill-fated attempt to move up in the criminal underworld, leaving him in debt and unable to earn a living.
Rounding out the main cast is Amrain Ismail-Essop, who plays Randal’s girlfriend, Alicia, and Ephram Gordon, playing their friend, Warren. Most of the film’s actors are unknown, at least to American audiences. While the cast shows no obvious weak spots, the interaction between Randal and Alicia positively sings. His desire to give them both a better life, and her desire just to be with him no matter what bring depth and life to the film. It seems hyperbolic to suggest that Ally and Ismail-Essop have better chemistry than Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, but the gritty aesthetic of Number 37 makes the romantic leads more believable and realistic, easily outshining the “opposites attract” paradigm.
Hardcore horror fans looking for this year’s Brawl in Cell Block 99, however, should keep looking. While gritty and violent, Number 37 stops well short of last year’s non-stop, violent slugfest. That’s not to say the film lacks brutality. Characters fuck with hardcore gangsters in this film and get fucked up for it. However, Dumisa opts for a slow-burn thriller than constantly adds tension until it snowballs uncontrollably in the final act.
Dumisa also drops the psychodrama/mystery element. Instead, she showcases the criminal element through magnificent cinematography. The tragic beauty of the darkest, seediest parts of Cape Town are on gorgeous display through the lens of Director of Photography Zenn van Zyl. Number 37 ratchets up the tension through Randal’s desperate attempts to escape his financial duress. Like a serious version of a Coen brothers film, Dumisa’s story adds a worthy entry to the growing zeitgeist of stories about small-time criminals getting in over their heads with the big time criminals.
Number 37 made it’s Canadian debut at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival.
Fantasia 2018: We’ve Got Our Eye Keenly Fixed On ‘Number 37’ [Review]
Beautifully captured, with brilliant acting and direction, Number 37 falls more at the noir, crime thriller end of the genre. The realistic violence is counterbalanced alongside realistic relationships, as the desperation of the human condition is on full display.