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Review: In ‘Félicité,’ a Mother Scrambles to Save Her Son

By: nytimes.com 8 months ago
Review: In ‘Félicité,’ a Mother Scrambles to Save Her Son

Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, this film resists the race-against-the-clock trap, instead bringing several illuminating, moving surprises.

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In Félicité,  Véro Tshanda Beya plays the title character, a singer and single mother in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The movie opens in a lively bar, full of gyrating, intoxicated folk, whom Félicité and the band entertain all night with infectious songs filled with blue notes. (The music is provided by the well-regarded Kasai Allstars.)

The next day, she s got troubles with her refrigerator and negotiations with a local handyman. Then, some bad news: Her teenage son has been grievously injured in a motorbike accident. He needs an immediate ” and immediately paid-for ” operation.

In an ordinary movie this would set off a race-against-the-clock scenario. But Félicité,  written and directed by the Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis, is an unconventional treatment of an emergency.

At crucial junctures in Félicité s desperate scramble to raise funds for her son s medical care, Mr. Gomis, who wrote the screenplay with Olivier Loustau and Delphine Zingg, expands time instead of compressing it. Félicité still has her job to do, after all. This movie aspires to depict real life, not life as cinema is often inclined to idealize it; by the same token, it is hardly a work of naturalism.

Mr. Gomis s cinematic style is spectacularly multifaceted. The camerawork and cutting often have the fleetness of a documentary, but there s nothing sloppy about them. (The cinematography is by Céline Bozon, the editing by Fabrice Rouaud and the director.)

There is one sequence near the middle of the film, in which Félicité, standing against a blue wall, hears more bad news about her son. She collapses, her back sliding down the wall, and the camera, staying near her head, follows her. There s a palpable immediacy to the scene; it resolves in a close-up of Ms. Beya that is as exquisitely framed as any shot from Carl Dreyer s The Passion of Joan of Arc. 

Expressive, almost dreamlike dissolves figure in a particularly fraught homecoming scene. There are shots of an orchestra and a choir in Kinshasa rehearsing, and eventually performing, works by Arvo Pärt. There are scenes in which Félicité wanders a night forest alone. None of these tendrils feel affected, though. And Mr. Gomis has a sharp ear for the alarming way in which romantic transactions are negotiated between men and women in this milieu.

Marry me, mama; your life will improve,  the handyman, Tabu (Papi Mpaka), says while working on the refrigerator. No sooner has he gotten that out then he adds, If you forget me, I ll strangle your little neck.  They become lovers, and stable ones at that. This is one of the several illuminating and often moving surprises Félicité  delivers.

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