Herbert J. Cohen
Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Catch a Fire

Three times in my career spanning over 40 years, I had the unpleasant feeling that the people who disagreed with my positions on certain issues were deliberately trying to hurt me professionally. Although their nefarious intentions never were actualized, the psychic pain from these encounters lasted for a very long time. There were opportunities for “payback” from time to time, but I never succumbed to those sinister emotions. I even called one of the offenders and wished him a happy new year, assuring him that I valued his friendship no matter what our tumultuous past had been.

Deep inside, I knew that God is in charge of the world and whatever difficulties I had at the time were ordained by Him, not by the human adversary in front of me. Moreover, my religious training taught me that there is reward and punishment, accountability, for everything we do or do not do in this world; and that God in His infinite wisdom will make sure everything turns out all right if not in this world then in the next. So it was gratifying for me to see the magnanimous gesture that Patrick Chamusso does at the end of the gripping drama of apartheid Catch a Fire.

Catch a Fire is the story of Patrick Chamusso, a young African working as a foreman at the Secunda fuel refinery in South Africa. When the plant is bombed, he is accused of carrying out a terrorist attack and picked up by Afrikaner police officer Nic Vos. The problem is that Patrick has no alibi for where he was on the night of the bombing. In his spare time, he is a soccer coach and he had taken a group of boys to a soccer match in a distant town. Then, he mysteriously disappeared after he dropped off the boys at their sleeping quarters. We learn that Patrick is having an affair with another woman and does not want to reveal his indiscretions to his wife, Precious. In order to shield his wife from pain and to protect his family from shame, he confesses to the crime. It is a courageous and painful decision with dire consequences.

The authorities, under Vos, torture Patrick and his wife, and when he is released he is now radicalized and wants revenge against those who wronged him. He soon joins a radical group and begins to plan another major attack on the refinery. Having been employed there, he is knowledgeable about the intimate details of the site and is uniquely positioned to cause maximum damage with minimum harm to the workers. In a suspense-filled series of events, he matches wits with Nic Vos, each one trying to anticipate the other’s moves as they both race to the plant for different reasons, Patrick to destroy and Nic to save.

Many years later after apartheid has been abolished, Patrick has a chance to kill Vos. However, he decides against it. He is inspired by Nelson Mandela who argued that, after apartheid, Africans now have to live with the white man and forgive him. Moreover, influenced by his own mature perspective on life, Patrick does not want to leave a legacy of revenge and murder to the next generation. And so he foregoes his opportunity for vengeance.

In a coda at the end of the movie, we learn that Patrick remarried after serving substantial prison time, had three children, and opened up an orphanage to serve many children who were children of victims of apartheid. Out of the ashes, a phoenix of salvation arose. Patrick Chamusso reminds us of the power of forgiveness to free us from the past and to allow us to build our lives anew.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at rabbihjco@msn.com.
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