One Zulu mother shows resilience against all odds in the AIDS drama Yesterday, an Oscar-nominated title from HBO Films, which is about to make its debut on the pay cable network.
But one fears the film, even at 93 minutes, will drag on too long for many viewers. Director Darrell James Roodt, a South African himself, is clearly in love with this land and its people. Many of the shots are lingering landscapes that, taken frame by frame, could be hung as portraits.
It is a beautiful film with a simple story, which is given time to develop into a tone poem to survival. Modern audiences, trained on one-hour TV dramas and non-stop action, may have trouble slowing down to watch this film blossom, built as it is on a slight but significant narrative and voiced in Zulu with subtitles. Warning: If you really want to embrace this work, no multi-tasking is possible.
Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo) is the film's heroine, an illiterate villager doting on an inquisitive daughter, Beauty, who obviously means the world to her. Her daily work seems bucolic and back-breaking — washing clothes on stones in the river, tilling and planting her land. Yet she is happy, with a smile that seems to light up her simple hut.
Roodt likes roads as visual metaphors, and Yesterday's path takes a turn into rough ground when its heroine develops an unshakable cough. The region seems to be populated exclusively by women who are professionals at waiting: for water at the communal pump, for medical care, for their husbands to come home from jobs in the cities. They have learned there is no point in arguing when they are turned away at the regional medical center each week once the quota of patients is filled.
When Yesterday finally receives care, she is diagnosed with AIDS. Instead of seeking help from her fellow villagers, she bases her day-to-day survival on the strength of a vow she makes to herself: She will not die until her daughter can start school.
The film manages to find beauty in simple actions. Viewers who stick with it will discover admiration for the Yesterdays of this world.
Yesterday debuts Nov. 28 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.