Félicité film review—A confluence of the hyper-real and the surreal
Alain Gomis’ Cinéma vérité style portrait of a Congolese singer strikes many powerful chords. The Berlin Silver Bear winner had its Asia Premiere in Mumbai courtesy of the Jio MAMI Film Festival.
by Rutwij Nakhwa
Encyclopaedia Britannica describes Cinéma vérité as a French film movement of the 1960s that showed people in everyday situations, with authentic dialogue and naturalness of action. It literally translates to “truthful cinema.” There are multiple instances in ‘Félicité’ that make you aware of its stark cinematic truth.
For extended portions of the film, the director restricts himself to diegetic sound alone. What you hear is exactly what you would if you were on location in Kinshasa, where Gomis has shot most of the film. The images too are devoid of any artifice, almost all filmed in available natural light. The actors are much like Robert Bresson’s “models”. Both emotion and dialogue are used very economically; a lot of them seem improvised. And so the effect of even a barely–there smile on Félicité’s face is profoundly elevated.
As it starts the film feels like a documentary. Félicité, played by Congolese singer-turned-actor Vero Tshanda Beya, is singing at a dark, rough, Kinshasa bar. As the men get progressively drunker and abusive, she sings in her hypnotic raspy voice and grooves to the beat. The exceptionally organic, infectious music is by the real-life collective Kasai Allstars, which plays Félicité’s band on-screen. Life in Kinshasa is far from perfect, but it goes on for Félicité, a single mother who at least has a job to get herself and her son, Samo, by. Until, Samo, meets a terrible motor-cycle accident. He stands to lose a leg, unless his mother could scramble together enough money for an operation.
Throughout the film, characters as well as the very landscape of the city seem to be exacting a cruel revenge on Félicité. Her only crime—she wants to be a “strong woman” in a world which is still mired in the vestiges of antiquity. At the time of need, everyone, including her mother (who asks, “How do you end up so ugly?”) and Samo’s father, turn her away. Even her own son, who is on the hospital bed, refuses to speak or eat or drink. Hope comes from an unlikely corner, in Tabu, a drunkard womaniser. He picks fights at the bar every night and unsuccessfully tries fixing Félicité’s fridge, which in a welcome running gag through the film, refuses to be mended.
At its core, the film has a bleak narrative about oppression and tragedy but Gomis manages to add some flavour to his very original capturing of this reality. The director like us, is a stranger to Kinshasa, and it shows in the intense curiosity with which his eye moves around. French cinematographer, Céline Bozon’s camera has a life of its own as it wanders capturing textures and snippets of lives that surround the main characters. Gomis is obsessed with faces, and studies them constantly in close-ups, taking in all the details, afraid the he might miss a slight expression or emotion. It is as if he hopes for, rather demands, answers from their faces about their lives, answers which they themselves do not seem to know.
The only hope the film seems to find, is through poetry, which is used through voiceovers and dialogue. We regularly see the Kinshasa Symphonic Orchestra performing. Their music, like colours from a watercolour painting, flowing over into the main narrative. There are dark, barely visible, recurring night-sequences. Dream-like images of Félicité wandering in a forest, perhaps of her own subconscious. She immerses herself in life-giving waters and emerges. But these sequences always cut back to the parched hot daylight of the city and its hostile surroundings that Félicité has to traverse through.
Much like itself, the film leaves you with not completely formed thoughts and feelings. At one point Félicité stares to a distant shore, perhaps thinking of a better life. Towards the end Samo and Tabu get piss-drunk on beer and it is hilarious. Tabu and Félicité also come to a sort of mutual understanding. Ultimately, Félicité doesn’t give up on life. She only manages to find an imperfect version of it which she can put up with. And don’t we all.