Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema

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With it's Oscar nomination for Best Picture, last year's "District 9" marked a major leap for South African–set movies. Now comes another reason for cinematic celebration from that country: "Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema," a film about crime and poverty in the worst part of Johannesburg that shares much in common with Fernando Mereilles' landmark Brazilian film, "City Of God."

Setting his film mostly in the worst slums of South Africa, writer-director Ralph Ziman uses the area to sock home his message about a dead-end, crime-ridden world that has sucked once-promising kids dry in post-apartheid Johannesburg. It's a side of the country we haven't seen portrayed often since Mandela came into power. To say this film is no "Invictus" is an understatement. Where that film offered hope and inspiration, this one revels in squalor and desperation.

Early sequences establish a young boy, Lucky Kunene (Jafta Mamabolo), living in poverty but trying to find a way out through education. When he learns he has been accepted into college—but with no scholarship—his hopes are dashed. The boy who tells us in his narration that his heroes are Karl Marx and Al Capone soon finds himself reluctantly falling under the spell of the local Russian crime lord, Nazareth (Jeffrey Sekele), who encourages Lucky and his hot-wired buddy, Zakes (Motlatsi Mahloko), to graduate from smaller crimes to stealing cars for him. Cut to greener pastures as the ambitious Lucky becomes an adult (Rapulana Seiphemo), flees to Johannesburg, and moves into the roughest section of town, eventually hatching a misbegotten real estate scheme. This eventually complicates his life with threats from local law enforcement in the form of a white cop (Robert Hobbs), as well as a battle with a local drug lord (Malusi Skenjana).

Inspired by true events, Ziman's story is as gritty as the place it portrays, a compelling look at a crime-infested environment overrun with shady characters just trying to stay one step ahead to survive in the modern South Africa. The film is more "Scarface" than "Tsotsi," the South African Oscar winner that also featured the terrific Seiphemo in a memorable role as a distraught young father. "Jerusalema" (apparently retitled with the more obvious "Gangster's Paradise" handle for domestic consumption here) gets under your skin with first-rate acting from some of the country's finest, led by the aforementioned Seiphemo who is authentic at every turn. Hobbs ("District 9") also delivers a solid performance, as does Mamabolo and a sterling, flawlessly cast group of local actors who help make this a must-see for serious film fans.

With gut-wrenching violence, numerous shootouts, and as much action as any summer tent-pole Hollywood movie, Ziman never loses sight of the tragic human waste simmering beneath this riveting look at a side of South Africa that seems to have been swept under the rug.

Genre: Drama
Written and directed by: Ralph Ziman
Starring: Rapulana Seiphemo, Motlastsi Mahloko, Jeffrey Sekele, Robert Hobbs, Malusi Skenjana