By John Mulderig
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — "Forgiveness liberates the soul." So says South African President Nelson Mandela, as adeptly impersonated by Morgan Freeman, in the uplifting sports drama "Invictus" (Warner Bros.).
Director Clint Eastwood’s account, based on actual events and adapted from John Carlin’s book "Playing the Enemy," effectively chronicles how Mandela transformed the race for a rugby championship into an opportunity to put that philosophy into widespread practice.
The initial situation, as detailed in the opening scenes, was hardly promising. With racial divides still deep, despite the recent downfall of apartheid, Mandela — fresh from his swift elevation from imprisoned dissident to chief executive — confronted a host of problems, including a rising crime rate and the lack of foreign investment in a state that had been an international pariah for decades.
Instinctively recognizing that interracial reconciliation must be his primary goal, however, Mandela settled on an unlikely means of achieving it, launching a campaign to unite his country behind the national rugby team as it competed in the 1995 World Cup competition, which South Africa hosted.
Despite the fact that the Springboks, as the team is known, though cherished by the white Afrikaner community, were widely hated by the soccer-playing black majority as the embodiment of pale privilege under the old regime, and undaunted by the crew’s dismal record in the lead-up to the international meet, Mandela enlisted the help of their captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to accomplish his long-shot goal.
As recounted by South African-born screenwriter Anthony Peckham, the two leaders’ partnership sees Francois touched and changed by Mandela’s forbearance as well as by the plight of black children in the impoverished townships to which Mandela dispatched Pienaar’s squad in an effort to widen their game’s popularity.
William Ernest Henley’s Victorian-era poem, which Mandela cites as having strengthened him in prison, and from which the film takes its title, is at best spiritually ambivalent, since the poet thanks "whatever gods may be" for his "unconquerable soul." But the script’s themes of generosity, openness and human solidarity are enhanced by religious references to the South African national anthem, "God Bless Africa," and by the prayer of thanksgiving offered, at a climactic moment, by the lone black player among the Springboks.
The moral and artistic merits of this inspiring tale, together with its salutary message, counterbalance the elements listed below, making it probably acceptable for mature teens.
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Mulderig is on the staff of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. More reviews are available online at www.usccb.org/movies.
The film contains brief scenes of violence, at least one use of the F-word, a few instances of crude and crass language and some mild sexual references. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.