SHOULD I SEE IT?
Making it onto the Oscar shortlist, as one of nine films still hoping for a Foreign Language film nomination, Félicité is a unique film that could resonate with audiences and voters alike.
First-time actor Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu delivers a performance worthy of someone with a number of acting credits under their belt.
Director Alain Gomis gives us a film full of tight close-ups and distant visuals, bringing us in close to the intimacy of the drama and stepping back to see the bigger picture of what Félicité's world looks like.
The film's slow and measured pace may be a challenge for viewers to sit through.
A significant portion of the film is shot in tight, close, handheld shots, which might be off-putting and frustrating for viewers to grow accustomed to.
Beyond Oscar purists and foreign film cinephiles, Félicité is a tough sell for mainstream audiences.
One of the nine films remaining on the Oscar shortlist for a 2017 Best Foreign Language Film nomination, Senegal’s Félicité tells a primarily simple story.
Félicité (Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu), a single mother, learns that her 14-year-old son, Samo (Gaetan Claudia) has been in a terrible motorcycle accident. She must come up with the money as soon as possible, as he needs to have a surgery as soon as possible to save his badly damaged left leg.
Also a singer, she frequently performs in a local Congolese bar with a band, Kasai Allstars, in front of a combustible mix of regulars. She says little, allowing her words to come through in her music.
We get a shift in tone and atmosphere from the very beginning. The vibrant club scene contrasts sharply with the more melancholy moments prior to Félicité learning of her son’s accident. Director Alain Gomis steps back and lets his camera show us the world these characters inhabit. We also recognize that Félicité has a struggle ahead of her, because she scrapes by on her own, and is desperately in need for money.
As she maneuvers through friends and the people she knows, Gomis’ camera shifts from a wide scope to tight, almost uncomfortable close-ups in scenes involving Félicité interacting with people around her. The suffocating camerawork also allows us to get a sense of imposition, as a claustrophobic situation tightens and closes in all around her.
Complicating matters is that her son refuses to eat or speak, and the facility can only provide so much assistance. This forces Félicité to reach out beyond her comfort zone, tracking down her estranged mother, her son’s father, and a wealthy crime boss who makes her desperation a harrowing and frightening experience.
Mputu portrays Félicité with a pride that becomes inspiring. She is purposed, steadfast, and refuses to take no for an answer. For her feature-film debut, her performance is terrific. As she visits people she knows, all owe her money and we realize that she is a giving, generous person. In a conversation with the band she performs with, we learn, as we suspect, she never asks for anything.
In the film’s second half, circumstances change for Félicité and Samo and a carousing drunk and mechanic named Tabu (Papi Mpaka) enters the fray. He attempts to help take care of Samo and becomes a surprising presence in their lives.
Interspersed with musical numbers featuring Mputu and the terrific Kasai Allstars, Félicité offers viewers a wonderful soundtrack. However, the film steps in and out of the main story a handful of times and confuses matters here and there. A few dimly lit, dream-like sequences reoccur within the film, breaking the flow of the narrative and leaving us wondering what exactly is going on. The film does fall into a lull occasionally, the slow, measured pace giving way to lengthy sequences with little to no dialogue.
In the end, Félicité reaches a place of comfort, calm, stability, and understanding. And whether it is on stage, or in the realization that peace may have found her family once again, Mputu presents a woman who has survived, while Gomis' film offers an important reminder as to the tenacity of the human spirit.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu, Gaetan Claudia, Papi Mpaka.
Director: Alain Gomis
Written by: Alain Gomis (screenplay); Olivier Loustau, Delphine Zigg (collaborators)
Release Date: October 27, 2017