Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2022: Good Madam (Mlungu Wam)

A few technical choices occasionally undermine this otherwise solid exploration of familial, historical trauma.

Synopsis: An eerie psychological thriller about Tsidi, who is forced to move in with her estranged mother, a live-in domestic worker caring obsessively for her catatonic white ‘Madam’ in the wealthy Cape Town suburbs. But as Tsidi tries to heal her family, the ‘spectre’ of ‘Madam’ begins to stir.

Tackling the subject of apartheid within a genre film is no easy feat, especially when embedding it within the more intimate setting of an estranged family. In this, Good Madam gives itself a weighty task, something which is evidenced in the 12 writing credits on the film. While collaboration is to be celebrated, this does lack a throughline, sometimes feeling that directional switches belong in entirely different films.

Chumisa Cosa excels as Tsidi, a woman forced to move in with her mother, Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe). Mavis’ work as a carer for a wealthy white woman has driven a wedge between the women. As the house rules are laid out to Tsidi and her daughter Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya), this tension surfaces once again, with the strict rules requiring them all to behave as if they are not there, making no impact on their surroundings. The control that Mavis exerts over the space and objects like cups becomes the focus of the conflict between mother and daughter.

Long, lingering shots of the outside of the house and a camera that comes to rest among various curios on shelves, untouched but still somehow filled with menace. Mavis carefully continues the same rituals and adheres to the same rules as before, even though her ‘madam’ is largely out of sight, creating an oppressive atmosphere. Flashes of conventionally scary set pieces cut through only infrequently, pushing the familial tensions to the fore with flashbacks and glimpses of the outside world. Flashbacks to initially jovial dinners that erupt into arguments further how deep the tension runs.

The tendency to focus on small, details throughout the film does lead to some of the film’s most striking moments, closing in on incredibly tactile sequences and leaning into the excellent sound design. On the other hand, this isolation does obscure the performers to some degree, especially where actions take over. While Chumisa Cosa’s performance is incredible, only she is often afforded the whole frame. There are moments where she looks genuinely like she is holding her breath as she moves through the house, something which inspires the same action in the viewer. With so many good performances it is a shame to not give everyone the same space to flesh out their characters, resulting in some elements that fall a little flat.

Overall, Good Madam does well to create tension and explore more intimately the long-lasting effects of such a damaging regime, drawing on some genuinely uncomfortable sequences to further this. Arguably a greater focus and space for performances to grow would elevate it even further.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Good Madam played the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival. More information on the festival is available from their webpage. The film will also play as part of Glasgow Film Festival.

Author: ScaredSheepless

Film and television fan, with a particular love for horror.

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