-By Maria Garcia

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Nowhere in Africa is the sprawling tale of a German Jewish family who escape to Kenya in 1938. Anticipating the peril of the Nazi regime, Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze), a former attorney, takes a job as a farm manager so that he can relocate his family to a remote corner of Africa. When the film opens, his daughter Regina (Lea Kurka, Karoline Eckertz), and his wife Jettel (Juliane Köhler) are about to join him. The movie, based on an autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig, centers on Jettel's transition from thin-skinned hausfrau--she packs her china and silver for life on the savannah--to sun-baked businesswoman. When Walter is called to serve in the British army, Jettel assumes his position as head of the household, but only after a perfidious interval in which she estranges both her husband and her daughter.

Writer-director Caroline Link strives for cinematic authenticity, shooting near the actual locations named in Zweig's novel. She hired African tribal people to play the parts of Africans, and she filmed their rain dance and male initiation rituals. Despite her probity and her compelling source material--Zweig's stirring narrative of dislocation--Link manages to concoct only melodrama, replete with sweeping pans of the African landscape to the accompaniment of musical tidal waves. It may be German, but Nowhere in Africa resembles a signature Hollywood epic and, not surprisingly, it garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Flawed by a screenplay in which Jettel, an unsympathetic character, is the protagonist, the film glides along on good production values and a few outstanding performances by male leads Ninidze and Matthias Habich, and by child actress Eckertz as young Regina.

It is obvious, even for those who have not read Zweig's novel--written from the point of view of a child--that this is Regina's story and not Jettel's. Unexplained circumstances, such as why the Redlichs' extended family, educated and prosperous, do not emigrate to Africa, or why Jettel remains resentful about living in Kenya--especially in the face of her husband's foresight--would be plausible if the story were told from Regina's point of view. A child's understanding of such matters is limited. In the end, it is not through Jettel, but through Regina's enchantment with Africa and her transforming relationship to Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), the Redlichs' Massai cook, that we understand the family's wrenching decision about whether to return to their homeland or remain in Kenya.

Although it appears to have escaped the notice of most critics, Nowhere in Africa skates on the slippery moral slope of colonial fantasy. Zweig's youthful memories of an idyllic, temporary haven have, in Link's imagination, been turned into a vapid, nostalgic journey in which a white woman, Jettel, becomes identified with a country whose culture she never fully comprehends or values. Bungling filmmakers like Link may or may not be blameless, but organizations which bestow prestigious awards on films that stir nostalgia for colonialism are definitely not above opprobrium.

--Maria Garcia

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