Some films are fully fleshed out narratives, with plot points and climaxes that viewers can quickly point to. These movies follow a certain path – there is a particular moment or resolution that the protagonist must reach so that their story can come to its conclusion. Other films simply embody emotion. These narratives are full-length works that capture exuberance, joy or even endless bouts of despair. Franco-Senegalese director Alain Gomis’ fourth feature, Félicité is one such film.
As the movie opens, we meet Félicité (portrayed by singer-turned-actress Véro Tshanda Beya), a single mother and vocalist at a popular nightclub in her hometown of Kinshasa – the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s capital. Her attitude like the arresting timbre of her voice is fierce. A force to be reckoned with and independent to a fault – Félicité lives her life her on own terms without the confines of marriage or the bounds of a relationship. She’s free and joyous until that’s all snatched away. When her 14-year-old son Samo (Gaetan Claudia) is severely injured in a motorbike accident – Félicité’s life caves in around her. Samo’s operation costs an enormous sum -- one million Congolese francs ($600 USD), and for the first time in her life – Félicité is forced to ask for help.
Overcome with fear and desperate to raise funds to save her son’s life— Félicité’s once open and lively personality becomes sullen and closed off. Her day-to-day existence, contending with a perpetually busted fridge, warding off the harassment of men and even singing become unbearable. Through Félicité’s eyes, Gomis highlights the burdens women must shoulder and the repercussions that they face when they live life on their own terms. In a society that values women only in relation to men, Félicité’s unwillingness to tie herself to a man and the freedom that she so relishes costs her basic human compassion. Gomis eloquently highlights both the sexism and poverty in the Congo. At times it is so powerful that searing looks and crisp shots are enough to carry film – there’s little dialogue in Félicité -- but it’s not missed.
While others– including her bandmates at the club are hesitant to help Félicité save her son– it is her unlikely companion Tabu (Papi Mpaki) – a womanizer and the club’s notorious drunk who might be her saving grace. And yet, Tabu is no savior. Gomis makes it clear that he enters Félicité life because she allows him to do so -- he does not barge his way in. The duo’s unlikely companionship is certainly one of much amusement and contemplation. However, their bond does not carry the film. It is the exhaustion and pain that leaves Félicité’ in constant turmoil that keeps viewers glued to the screen. Her panic and grief are palpable.
Félicité is a bit too long. Running just over two hours, it could have used a much sharper edit. During the second half of the film; scenes seem to go on endlessly. There is also a puzzling dream sequence—a perpetual nightmare that haunts Félicité that feels out of place. Cast in dark, silent shadows, I’m not certain Gomis was able to convey his message to the audience in those scenes. The narrative isn’t exactly tight – Gomis often substituted music for story. The film is full of sequences of Félicité performing with her band-- the Kasai Allstars. There are also several montages of the stunning Symphonic Orchestra of Kinshasa. It seems almost as if Gomis favors the media of music over that of cinema.
And yet, it is the music along with Beya’s arresting face and Mpaki’s memorable antics as Tabu that make Félicité a work of art. It is also the anguish in everyday day survival when you are losing your will to live that makes the film largely captivating.
Félicité premiered Oct. 4 at the New York Film Festival and it opens in the U.S. on October 27.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami