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Film Review - The Lullaby (Siembamba)

The Lullaby: Directed by Darrell Roodt.

Starring: Reine Swart, Thandi Puren, Brandon Auret, Dorothy Ann Gould, and Deànré Reiners.

Before I begin, I would like to note that this is the second time Darrell Roodt has directed a movie called "Lullaby;" however, this movie is not a remake or a sequel of his 2008 film, Lullaby, if anyone is looking on IMBD. Additionally, this review is spoiler-heavy, so you've been warned.

The Lullaby or Siembamba is Roodt's latest horror film set in his native South Africa. As he did several years ago with his classic horror movies City of Blood, and The Stick, Roodt draws inspiration from South Africa's violent history to create his latest work.

During the Second Boar war, the British captured the wives and children of Dutch or Boar colonists. The Boar families would then be locked in concentration camps where many of the women were often sexually assaulted by the British solders.

The film opens with a disturbing scene of a Dutch priest (played by Brandon Auret) and a Midwife killing the newborn babies of Dutch women who were raped in the camps. The priest declares the women to be traitors before killing their babies and tossing their bodies over a cliff. The film then cuts to a modern day maternity ward where a young woman named Chloe (played by Reine Swart) is giving birth. After what appears to be a difficult and traumatic birth, Chloe brings her newborn son home to her controlling and judgemental mother's, Ruby's (played by Thandi Puren) house.

On the way home, Ruby inquires about the baby's father, but Chloe says nothing. Ruby then decides to sing a South African nursery rhyme called "Siembamba," which is based on the killing of the newborn children and includes the following endearing line:

"Hush, little baby. Ring his neck and throw him in a ditch!"

Now, side note: I don't about any of you, but I think anyone who would sing a song like that to a baby would make Gomez and Morticia Addams rush to call child protective services. But I digress...

As the film progresses, Chloe is finding it difficult to sleep because Liam, her son, wakes at odd hours and Ruby is often not there to help because of her real estate job. Chloe starts to have visions of Liam being horribly killed and at one point thinks she's found his body in the freezer. To make worse, Chloe starts to see a woman in a black dress who seems to be after Liam.

Ruby urges Chloe to go see her psychologist, Dr. Reed (played by Auret), a not-too subtle way of drawing a connection to the movie's opening and the direction the rest of the story is going in.

A little backstory, Darrell Roodt has had a thirty year career as a writer, producer and director. Having made movies in both South Africa and the United States, Roodt is an artist who draws from different parts of life in his home country to create his movies. Not content to limit himself to one genre, Roodt has delved into most of the big ones in order to tell show various sides of South Africa that most Americans never get to see. Whether it's the gritty 1997 crime drama Dangerous Ground- about a young anti-apartheid activist who returns home for his father's funeral and finds himself hunted by his past. Or the romantic comedy, Trouvoete, in which a pair of young white-collar South African professionals who decide to give finding the right person one more chance.

In Lullaby/Siembamba, Roodt returns not just to South Africa, but to it's violent and haunting history. In his earlier film, The Stick, Roodt tells the story of a team of racist soldiers who find themselves stalked by the ghosts of a group of villagers they murdered. In both The Stick and The Lullaby, we see not only violence, but also the dehumanizing of people and the need to seek revenge or to fight back. With Lullaby/Siembamba, Roodt weaves a disturbing nightmare from a dark chapter in South African history to create a film that is both scary and an intelligent discussion on how little the problems and burdens of women have changed in the last century.

Auret's Dr. Reed is a dismissive chauvinist who acts like the key to every women/s problem is for them to take more pills and go out to dinner with him. While his performance can come off as over-the-top, for this movie it works by showing that those we trust in the most intimate ways are often either unable or unwilling to help us and mean us harm.

However, I'd say that it's Reine Swart that steals the movie. Best known for her TV work in England and the US, Lullaby/Siembamba is her first film as the lead. Not only is Reine believable, she makes you feel the plight of this young woman who has suffered a series of traumas, making the audience feel her struggle to both save her baby and her very soul.

While I like it, I think the movie fails with it's need to make every scene dark. While it sets a tone, having every scene seemingly set in shadows is too much. Also, having Auret play both the priest at the beginning of the movie and then as Dr. Reed feels like Roodt is tipping his hand so that the ending isn't all that surprising.

Then there's the need for so much blood. I liked that this movie is an uncompromising vision in the tradition of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist, but the overuse of blood in several scenes just desensitizes the viewer rather than excite or scare them. But otherwise the story and Reine's performance hold up well and more than make up for the movie's short comings.

Overall, Roodt succeeds in creating a horror vision that will stay with audiences for some time to come. Additionally, he manages to create a vision of the problems women still face, such as: not living up to their mother's expectations, sexual assault, and a dismissive psychiatric culture that would rather give a woman pills rather than solve their problem.

In many ways, the movie is a timely story and a thoughtful horror movie.

Overall grade: B+

The Lullaby arrives in theaters & On Demand on March 3rd.

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