Co-writer/director Jenna Cato Bass’s South African horror tale succeeds on every level
Even though their respective meanings have become blurred over time, a distinct difference remains between a “house” and a “home.” That difference comes immediately into play in co-writer and director Jenna Cato Bass’s (Neighbors, Flatland, High Fantasy) latest film, Good Madam (“Mlungu Wam”). The psychological horror film doubles as political horror for the central character, Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa), a thirty-something South African woman returning to the white-owned house—not the home—where she was partially raised by her estranged mother, Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe).
For Tsidi, the decision to contact her mother after an unspecified period of silence isn’t an easy one, but is the last and only choice after the death of her beloved grandmother. A reunion with Luthando (Khanyiso Kenqa), her onetime romantic partner and the father of her preteen daughter Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya), also proves to be a non-starter, leading Tsidi and Winnie to arrive at the sprawling Cape Town mansion where Mavis lives and works as a full-time housekeeper and unofficial nurse to the mansion’s sickly, dying owner.
Although Apartheid ended in South Africa almost three decades earlier, Mavis lives in a state of suspended animation in a submissive relationship to the mostly unseen owner. Intent on continuing the rituals and routines that have given her life a modicum of meaning, Mavis barely registers Tsidi’s return at first. Tsidi’s persistent presence, however, proves to be a destabilizing force in Mavis’s seemingly settled life. Bitterness and disappointment permeates their relationship, with an unsteady Tsidi, deeply unhappy with where she finds herself, forcing Mavis to confront the choices she has made, including leaving most of her biological family behind to live and work in Cape Town for a wealthy white family. Though it may have come from economic necessity, the decision left an emotional void in Tsidi’s life filled only by her recently departed grandmother.
Tsidi’s life choices, specifically her embrace of South African culture and speaking Xhosa, stand in marked contrast to her half-brother, Stuart (Sanda Shandu), who exchanged his cultural and ethnic identity for the benefits of assimilation into a white-dominant society. That Stuart prefers speaking English and wearing button down shirts and Tsidi her native tongue and traditional dress isn’t accidental or inadvertent; it’s a conscious choice each has made to accommodate themselves to the reality of a post-Apartheid South Africa where rigid, often insurmountable distinctions based on class, race, and gender continue to predominate.
The horrors of Apartheid and post-Apartheid South Africa hover uncomfortably above Tsidi, Winnie, and Mavis. Tsidi’s return reawakens a common set of fears and anxieties, not least of which are related to “house rules” (no running indoors, no touching the fridge, no swimming unaccompanied, and most importantly, no knocking or contacting the dying owner). Winnie catches on almost immediately: They’re expected to be invisible or as close to invisible as possible. When Winnie discovers gravestones on the property (“It’s allowed because they own the land,” Mavis says), Bass’s slow-burn approach goes into higher gear, as native religions, political and racial hierarchies, and, quite possibly, the supernatural collide.
While Bass co-wrote the story and directed the film, the entire cast shares screenplay credit, the result of Bass and co-writer Babalwa Baartman seeking not just input from the cast’s lived experiences, but also inviting them to help shape, define, and redefine their characters. It certainly counts as a bold choice, but it also adds a layer of authenticity to every facet of Good Madam, from the production design (the owner’s fragile, expensive china juxtaposed with their collection of African masks), to the language(s) used by the characters, to the graceful, note-perfect performances from the entire cast.
Good Madam is available to stream via Shudder.