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The Supernatural Apartheid of 'Good Madam'

This review is a translation of Pedro's original Portuguese-language review of Good Madam on Fala Visual.

Horror is a genre with huge global appeal and potential. Every place, every village and every culture has its customs, its myths and its superstitions. Thus, there will always be material to explore those fears and make them known to the world.

Good Madam is a perfect example of an allegorical horror movie that seeks to give a supernatural dimension to life's daily problems. It all starts with someone dying. The death of a family’s matriarch shakes the entire family structure and, in traditional inheritance fashion, the various heirs try to take advantage of the moment. That behavior drives away Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa), the granddaughter – the family member closest to the deceased – who is then forced to go live with her mother, a domestic who works alone in a historical colonial house occupied by an old white woman. Tsidi, taking her own daughter with her, is forced to confront fears of the past that will persist to haunt her present.

Admittedly, this isn't a movie that's going to make you jump out of the chair every five minutes. Jenna Cato Bass's flick is all about the psychological. To achieve that, it utilizes its heavy atmosphere, filled with mysticism, dropping occasional clues about the long-term symptoms of past trauma. In addition to some strange amulets, the house has a set of rules for its visitors that basically require them to pretend that they are not there. The film is effectively edited with some chilling fast cuts that raise the tension tenfold and provoke many reality-based questions.

Does the horror always work? Maybe not for everyone, and much of its effectiveness will be closely linked to how involved you are with a story that goes beyond the supernatural happenings. There is the human component, and there is a South African past with many open wounds. Officially, there is no more Apartheid, but there is still an omnipresent racial division that is accentuated in the suburbs, with entire condo sets where Black people just come in to do the services that white people – who still hold most of the, de facto, power – do not want to do. Colonization has ended, but there are minds to decolonize yet – Kanye West would be proud of these words – and there is a whole majority fringe of society to whom belongs very little but subservience to the rich and powerful, even if informally instituted.

However, Good Madam goes even further. Its horror elements are mostly well-explained, as it suggests that there is a spell inhabiting some minds that are stuck in the past. We are entitled to some well-crafted scenes between the real and the imaginary, within which director Bass shows capable hands to work with the themes. The strong acting elevates everything on-screen, and Chumisa Cosa, in particular, is an authentic force of nature. Some of her facial expressions are, by themselves, more frightening than any of the supernatural elements. She provides a truly human dimension to the role, especially in all the conflicts she endures as a mother, daughter, and estranged relative. It is really easy to root for her.

Many of the best films in the social horror subgenre are very local, presenting distinct elements from different cultures, which makes their social commentary very genuine. Such films transport viewers to a whole new world. Good Madam is one of the best contemporary movies to do so, as well as one of the best horror movies I’ve seen from the African continent.



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