Opening in our area only after (and perhaps, only because of) its Oscar win as Best Foreign-Language Film, Nowhere in Africa already has skeptical viewers on the defensive. Did this German export really deserve to clean up in a category in which the life-changing City of God wasn't even nominated?
Answer: Not by a long shot. A technically accomplished period epic based on the memoirs of author Stefanie Zweig, Nowhere in Africa tells an earnest story of social upheaval that seesaws frustratingly between the inspired and the rote.
Our guides are the Redlichs, a family of German Jews who immigrate to Kenya in 1938 to escape the impending terrors of the Nazi regime. Father Walter (Merab Ninidze) is the first to make the move, and he adapts handily to his new life working on a cattle farm. But when mother Jettel (Juliane Köhler) and daughter Regina (Lea Kurka) follow him across the ocean, an attitudinal rift develops. While Regina embraces with innocent wonder the earthy ways of the natives, Jettel bemoans the loss of the creature comforts she prizes almost above all else.
Even as the Redlichs confront alien challenges like malaria, they find themselves haunted by the specter of prejudice. In this new environment, however, the racism is just as likely to be theirs. This turnabout is the movie's sturdiest concept, with Jettel pointedly reminding her daughter "a white child is not a black child." The simultaneous fraying of the young couple's marriage, however, receives far more attention than it deserves. Once we've established that Jettel is a materialistic snob, she's awfully hard to care about, and Walter has too few facets to be a compelling character, either. It's more fun to hang with Regina (Kurka is replaced by Karoline Eckertz as the years advance), who immerses herself in African communities and traditions that prove entrancing no matter how preciously the movie treats them. Cast in the patronizing role of Walter's saintly cook and bodyguard, Sidede Onyulo still acts everyone else off the screen.
The script is relentlessly episodic, and the dialogue teeters toward the obvious. (An actual line: "Differences are good.") Yet an appealing bittersweetness arises every time the Redlichs are seen pining for a Germany they know has turned its back on them. The closer they come to being citizens of the world, the more they realize that their hearts will always lie in their homeland, no matter how hideously it has contorted itself. How easily that lesson applies to our own political geography and its not-so-new set of contortions.