If you live in a community that treats them like plagues sent from God to punish the wicked, then HIV and AIDS are terrifying indeed. That's the kind of world 12 year-old Chanda lives in. People who are inflicted with the disease are ostracized and don't seek treatment because they think they're being divinely punished.
Chanda is a smart young girl. She lives with her family in a rundown house just outside of Johannesburg. Her mother is the only parent around. Her father leaves for months at a time, only to return drunk and belligerent. Chanda has had formal schooling and is smarter than most of the adults around her. It's frustrating for her to live in a culture where respecting your elders is a top priority when much of what they say and do is wrong or based on erroneous information.
Khomotso Manyaka, who plays Chanda, is an honest actress. Her performance here is one of sincerity and genuine emotion. She's a force on the screen even though she's so young. It's hard to take your eyes off her. She commands this movie with a quiet dignity.
Many movies of this ilk feel phony. Like they're trying to beat the tears out of you. 'Life, Above All' doesn't feel that way at all. It feels real and authentic. A straightforward look at how the communities and villages of Sub-Saharan Africa treat such a deadly disease as AIDS.
At one point in the movie Chanda visits one of her friends who has been infected. She's been ostracized by her family and has been made to live in a rickety shed behind the house. Chanda seems to be the only one who understands that this treatment isn't right. That the entire village and culture is blatantly wrong in the way they treat this illness, but no one listens.
Chanda is resilient in the face of pain and heartache. As her mother becomes increasingly ill, Chanda fearlessly becomes the matriarch of her family.
'Life, Above All' is heartrending at times, and uplifting at others. It doesn't contain any false emotions or ham-fisted moralizing. Manyaka's performance drives the story. She's the level head that is able to see through the false traditions of those that have gone before and realize that changing their ways is the only way to combat such a rampant and unforgiving illness.
While at the outset the premise of 'Life, Above All' might seem depressing and bleak, there is hope here. Hope that more people like Chanda will begin to realize the error of their actions and change the way they treat people. No longer ostracizing and beating them, but accepting them and helping to get them treatment. This kind of treatment may still be a long way off for people in impoverished places, but with people like Chanda championing the cause there is hope.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Life, Above All' is a Sony Pictures Classics release. It comes in a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack. The Blu-ray is a 50GB disc. It's labeled as a Region A release.
Sony usually does a masterful job with their Sony Pictures Classics releases, and this is no exception. The visuals here are stunning. Demo-worthy perhaps. A movie that you may play to show off some of the more intricate details that your HD television can produce.
Chanda's dustbowl of a town creates a desert feel. The movie has a yellowish hue but it isn't nearly as bad as some of the other yellow filters we've seen on other movies. Instead the effect seems more caused by the beating African sun rather than a filter of any kind.
Detail here is astounding though. Skin appears perfectly natural, as any imperfections, age and smile lines remain visible throughout. Mid-range photography still features quite a bit of detail. Softness never seems to become a problem. Lines are crisp and defined. Blacks are deep and resolute. Shadows offer perfectly delineated scenes that accentuate fine detail even during evening and night scenes. Colors are bursting with life. The pinks, purples, and greens of the women's dresses pops against a background of harsh earthy sand and dirt.
There are no compression problems to speak of. I found 'Life, Above All' to be one of the best, albeit subtle, video presentations of the year. It doesn't feature a lot of glorious animation or action sequences, but that doesn't mean it's any less demo worthy. This is about as perfect as video presentations come.
Sony has given 'Life, Above All' a DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless mix, which, for a dramatic movie, is unexpectedly lively. Usually, all we get to say in the audio section of reviews for talkative dramas is that dialogue is clear, but ambient sound is lacking. That's not the case here. This mix is alive in every channel. Yes, dialogue is clean and clear, but that's not what makes this audio presentation one to take notice of.
Chanda's busy village is full of all kinds of activity, and as Chanda rides through it the milling of the townspeople can be heard clearly in the rear speakers. LFE can be felt as a thunder storm rolls in. The whoosh of strong winds blows through the sound stage with force. The movie's geography-influenced score is given ample room to breathe. It fills each channel offering and immersive experience of culturally significant music.
It may be a subtle soundtrack full of intricate details, but it's one that will have you completely engaged in the movie that you're watching.
'Life, Above All' is a coming-of-age story about a young African girl who has to grow up far too fast, but does so without hesitation. She's determined to take care of her family no matter the social costs. It's a heart-warming film that never feels like it's trying to trick or deceive you into crying your eyes out. It feels genuine and its performances feel true. The Blu-ray features exceptional video, very strong audio, and a few extras. 'Life, Above All' comes recommended.