A Con­golese mother does what­ever it takes to help her son in the mov­ing drama.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - justin.chang@la­times.com JUSTIN CHANG FILM CRITIC

The open­ing se­quence of “Félic­ité,” a mov­ing and ex­pan­sive fourth fea­ture from the French Sene­galese direc­tor Alain Gomis, is a gor­geous blur of chat­ter, move­ment and song. In a crowded bar in Kin­shasa, the cap­i­tal of the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo, pa­trons drink and dance into the wee hours, their loud, bick­er­ing voices clash­ing with the mu­sic per­formed by the real-life lo­cal col­lec­tive Ka­sai Al­ls­tars and a club singer named Félic­ité (Véro Tshanda Beya), whose somber gaze mag­ne­tizes the cam­era from the first frame.

Félic­ité leads a hard life and has seen her share of past pain, as has her coun­try, rav­aged by despo­tism, war and a colonial le­gacy that has left pro­found scars and in­equities in its wake. These hard­ships silently mark the land­scapes we see and the peo­ple we meet, even as the movie it­self re­mains en­tirely in the present tense. There are dream se­quences in a night­time wood and other odd flights of lyri­cal ab­strac­tion, but flash­backs would have only di­luted Gomis’ in­tended ef­fect, which is to cap­ture the tu­mul­tuous im­me­di­acy of ev­ery­day re­al­ity yet also in­fuse it with an ex­alted spir­i­tual di­men­sion.

If the movie’s form is a rich weave of grotty re­al­ism and soul­ful mu­si­cal, the story it­self is re­mark­ably sim­ple. Félic­ité, a sin­gle mother, learns that her 14year-old son, Samo (Gae­tan Clau­dia), has been se­ri­ously in­jured in a mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent and needs an op­er­a­tion to mend a bro­ken leg. But she will have to pay for part of the treat­ment im­medi

ately, and af­ter some early set­backs she goes out into the streets of Kin­shasa to find the money, a jour­ney that will send her to Samo’s un­help­ful fa­ther, a boss who owes her back pay and a des­per­ate thief who turns out to be in worse straits than she is.

At ev­ery step she is met with the con­tempt and hos­til­ity of those she asks for help, in­clud­ing her own fam­ily. The cin­e­matog­ra­pher Cé­line Bo­zon keeps Beya’s ex­tra­or­di­nary vis­age mostly at the cen­ter of her tight, mo­bile im­ages, but oc­ca­sion­ally pulls back to take in the rest­less, teem­ing ac­tiv­ity of Kin­shasa, where char­ity and com­pas­sion are shown to be held hostage by misog­yny, cor­rup­tion and (some­times right­ful) mis­trust of author­ity. Loom­ing over it all is a thick layer of plat­i­tudi­nous piety in which an in­vo­ca­tion of God’s name is seen as a rea­son­able sub­sti­tute for an offer of help.

None of this so­cial ob­ser­va­tion seems forced or sen­sa­tion­al­ized. The cru­elty we ob­serve is strik­ingly mat­terof-fact — a rash of bloody street beat­ings is tossed in with lit­tle ex­pla­na­tion — but so are the oc­ca­sional re­prieves, the mo­ments of op­ti­mism and grace (one of which ex­plains how our hero­ine got her name). And there is one bright spot in the form of Tabu (Papi Mpaki), a wild bar pa­tron who takes a stab at re­pair­ing Félic­ité’s per­pet­u­ally bro­ken-down re­frig­er­a­tor (a run­ning gag and per­haps a metaphor) and even­tu­ally finds a place in her home and heart.

Gomis, who wrote the script with Del­phine Zingg and Olivier Lous­tau, has a flair for merg­ing fo­cused char­ac­ter study and vi­brant, sweep­ing mise-en-scène. His pre­vi­ous film, “To­day” (2012), was a sur­real whirl­wind of a movie star­ring the Amer­i­can rap­per and slam poet Saul Wil­liams as a Sene­galese man ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the last day of his life. For “Félic­ité,” which will rep­re­sent Sene­gal in the race for the for­eign-lan­guage film Os­car, Gomis was for­tu­nate in his choice of Beya, a Con­golese per­former who had never acted in a film be­fore. She ar­rives fully formed here as a fig­ure of enor­mous dig­nity and warmth, a pil­lar of re­silience who is none­the­less all-too-hu­manly sus­cep­ti­ble to ex­haus­tion, grief and de­spair.

Félic­ité is also an artist, some­one who skill­fully and in­stinc­tively chan­nels her feel­ings into song. And so it’s fit­ting that mu­sic should be­come the movie’s emo­tional fil­i­gree, rang­ing from the band’s ju­bi­lant jam ses­sions to the heart-stop­ping oc­ca­sional in­ter­ludes fea­tur­ing the Kin­shasa Sym­phony Orches­tra, per­form­ing their ren­di­tions of Arvo Pärt in an enor­mous ware­house space. The mix of im­pro­vi­sa­tion and clas­si­cism goes beyond mere eclec­ti­cism. It re­flects the movie’s own gen­er­ous em­brace of life in its end­less ca­pac­ity for joy, sor­row and awe.

Strand Re­leas­ing

FÉLIC­ITÉ is played by Véro Tshanda Beya, a Con­golese per­former who had never acted in a movie be­fore now. She gives the char­ac­ter dig­nity, warmth and re­silience.

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