I am the wanderer and you are mine forever.
It’s a chicken and egg conundrum. Does a demon named Utuli roam the earth in search of souls to consume, feeding on the weakness of those who’ve endured lost to serve as its host? Or does it create turmoil and tragedy precisely to enlist those willing to give themselves over to its quest for satiation—causing the pain it feeds on rather than opportunistically finding the pain we create for ourselves? No matter which choice proves to be correct, we are left to suffer. We must watch our loved ones perish and we must sacrifice our own souls in a desperate fight to reclaim theirs. Either way Utuli wins because it holds all the cards. Refusal only means it will find or kill again until receiving another’s acquiesce.
We can’t therefore blame Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe) for getting himself into his current predicament of becoming a wanderer fated to collect souls for the demonic presence that’s taken the form of his dead daughter Vuyiswa (Owam Arwen Mditshwa). He carries it in a sack on his back while looking for those close enough to death to not become destroyed by the guilt of letting it consume them. Is Lazarus complicit in this act or prisoner to its whims? That’s yet to be decided when his former boss’s son William (Garth Breytenbach) and family (Inge Beckmann as wife Sarah and Keita Luna as their orphaned niece Mary) arrive to takeover the abandoned farm he once worked. Lazarus offers to help out, quickly growing an affinity for the little girl.
Harold Hölscher takes us into the South African forest to tell this ghost story on the border between life and death. More than a number, the name 8 aligns with the local villagers’ beliefs and a war that has been raging between them and Lazarus for years. They seek to protect themselves from him as he cuts through their land like a shadow leaving a pile of bodies in his wake. That he meets Mary is but a coincidence as she searches for food her silkworms can eat. It’s kismet as the moths those creatures will soon metamorphose into are believed by Lazarus to carry the souls of the dead upon their backs. He therefore gives the girl hope her parents still live on the wings of lepidopterans.
The imagery in this is quite beautiful and a welcome contrast to the creature hiding in Lazarus’ satchel—its demonic eyes peering out from under the flap. The resulting dynamic is effective because it ensures we don’t fear this man as much as his actions. Lazarus was once a healer and only succumbed to his current fate after his daughter was burned alive. We can therefore empathize with his anguish and appreciate the care he gives Mary as a young girl desperate to be loved and dealt with as an equal. William and Sarah sadly can’t do the same as both traverse the rocky road that is their surprise role as parents. He’s too naively optimistic and she too cold and callous to fully break through her defenses.
And this is where Hölscher’s film is tough to really get behind. His script intentionally plays these two people against each other despite them supposedly being in love. William becomes a pushover and puppet with a gleam in his eye that he can’t justify with action while Sarah is almost intentionally cruel to everyone who dares cross her path. For a world so steeped in the dramatic complexity of spirituality, their two-dimensional pawns meant to push Mary closer to Lazarus and thus force his hand as far as deciding to save her or give her to Utuli are a glaring incongruity. Whether they’re struggling to figure out how to exist for someone other than themselves or not, their motivations are simply too tied to the plot to care.
Sarah is the more egregious character because she’s often shown warming up to Mary and expressing contrition and love. It’s a roller coaster of emotion then as she hugs the girl and tells her everything is okay before going to her husband with indignation towards their inability to have their own child to make her a “real mother.” And when her fear of Lazarus comes to the forefront, she takes measures to protect Mary while flying into a rage towards William. He exacerbates things by never taking her emotions or words seriously and their hostility towards one another inevitably ignites a self-replenishing cycle of spite. They’re written as such flawed and ill-equipped guardians that I wanted Lazarus to save Mary even if it meant killing her.
That’s the last thing I should want, however, as the village’s tribal leader Obara (Chris April) resolves himself to stopping Lazarus before the demon becomes too strong. Lazarus is an enigmatic force of righteousness juggling the desire to save his daughter despite the atrocities he’s allowed to happen and his need to stop Utuli from placing another innocent child on his conscience. We want him to be pushed into a corner to choose because there’s no right answer and we want the demon to get what’s coming because it’s the main villain devoid of merit. A lot of what works so well with Lazarus and Utuli’s relationship is therefore harmed by this constant desire for William and Sarah to push Mary towards them instead of stumbling over alone.
And while I know some of this can be attributed to that initial question of whether Utuli has control over more than just Lazarus, I don’t think the film gives us enough for that to be case. Sarah has nightmares, but they feel more about her fears than an external force dictating her mental state. It’s too bad because the ending is satisfyingly bittersweet as it exposes how potent the evil here truly is. Since the script wants to initially put everything on Lazarus’ shoulders, letting that evil exist beyond him to give others the benefit of the doubt seems an afterthought. As it stands, William and Sarah are merely irredeemable characters that leave Mary in a no-win situation. Investment in her plight isn’t therefore in large supply.
courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival