Alain Gomis’ new film Félicité is a moving take on motherly love in a place long forgotten by film.
Having spent over a century in the age of visual information, most Americans would still have a hard time naming a movie that takes place in Africa that isn’t Casablanca. Sure, special news reports come from the continent often enough, whether they’re from National Geographic or 60 Minutes, but that’s a vastly different from staging a narrative there, making the place feel far more passive. In effect we say, “This is happening to Africa, not in Africa.” News reports also have a tendency to homogenize the continent, massive and diverse as it is. Rarely, in our armchair adventures, do we linger in one place there, and try to listen.
Alain Gomis’ new film, Félicité is an opportunity for us all. Set in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the eponymous Félicité (Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu) is an African soul singer in a small bar, where she performs every night to support herself and her son, Samo (Gaetan Claudia). The camera makes us independent viewers early on, never emphasizing its subject’s importance over the other recurring members of the bar crowd, and the night takes center-stage. Drinkers dance, brag, fight, and even break the fourth wall, implicating everyone in the theater as being with them. Up onstage, Félicité seems invulnerable.
The next morning, that façade crumbles when she gets a call from the nearby hospital about her son, who has been injured in a motorcycle accident. Félicité takes the first of many trips by back of a motorcycle to the compound. She is, from the start, assuredly tough, and hardly falters between seeing her son’s wrecked body and setting about fixing it.
The story of a mother going to unquestionable lengths for her child is an old one – the setting, for many viewers, is new. Here, the hospital must be paid entirely out of pocket before they can administer any medicine or perform surgery, and Félicité has to take it upon herself to feed and provide water for the boy.
Speaking to the doctor, he states that he requires one million Congolese Francs (about $600 US dollars, which used interchangeably in the DRC) before he can operate. Félicité tells him so firmly that money is no object that we almost believe her. In fact, it means that she’s got a Herculean task of fundraising before her. The first half of the film is not unlike a Congolese version of the Safdie brother’s Good Time in its conceit.
Set in Kinshasa, Félicité is an opportunity for us all to watch and learn something.
As Félicité leaves the hospital, two motifs are introduced. The first is a score. Already a movie of musical importance given the opening scene at the bar, the addition score is remarkable in that we, for the first time, cut away from Félicité’s story completely to the inside of a makeshift concert hall, where an entirely African orchestra, sitting on blue plastic chairs, are conducted to deliver the first instance of a tragic refrain.
The second motif happens directly after the first (the score continues) and is a sequence of grainy footage of a forest at night. We return to this reliably throughout, and though it’s unclear whether it is real or a part of Félicité’s mind, it’s enough to give the otherwise straightforward film a touch of the otherworldly.
Behind the camera is Alain Gomis, a French-Senegalese director on his fourth feature. He has won Audience Awards at the Belfort Film Festival and Milan’s Festival for African Cinema, and Félicité has already won a Silver Bear from the Berlin Film Festival in February. Premiering the new work at New York Film Festival, this is his first American debut; judging by the subtlety of narrative and quality of the visual performance, we’ve all been missing something.
In a place where money changes value and nobody answers to power, hard tasks like Félicité’s begin to seem truly impossible.
Félicité goes from the bottom of Kinshasa to the top to get money for her son, and both tell us quite a lot about the place itself. In a meeting with members of her extended family, she sits silently as an elder man implores everyone to give what they have and “be repaid by God.” She then goes to old jobs that haven’t settled with her and demands payment. When a bar owner refuses, she goes to a Congolese police station – a painted shipping container with a stationed officer – and brings him back with her. Later, she is forced to give a portion of her earnings to the officer, and we see the reason so little order feels imposed on the chaos of her journey. This unreliability from all sides is itself a motif of the story – in a place where money changes value and nobody answers to power, hard tasks like Félicité’s begin to seem truly impossible.
The one thing that isn’t questioned is her values, perhaps to the detriment of the film. Samo, Félicité’s injured son, says perhaps two words the entire movie, and the two have almost no moments of contact – where the incredible love she clearly has for her child is voiced. Upon visiting Samo’s father, one of Félicité’s last resorts, she is told that she has raised a thug who deserves his injury. If there’s truth to the insult, it lies again in the darkened forest scenes of her dream world, where we perhaps even witness the motorcycle accident in question – if you’re open to that interpretation. In the forest, Félicité swims across a river to an Okapi – a wild African animal, much like a horse, and tries to lay her hands on it. The danger and fragility felt clearly belongs to her son, but echoes of that emotion never make it into the main storyline, and her desperate attempts to rescue him begin to feel more and more in vain.
The ending, when it comes, isn’t happy or sad but open – dreamlike as well. It has every right to be, especially when the place Christine inhabits has been condemned by films before it as exactly one kind of feeling, one kind of place. The multitudes Kinshasa contains are those of the film, which sparkles with happy or melancholy moments. But why, the viewer asks, need we feel so distant?
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