Director: Alain Gomis
Cast: Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu
Watch Felicite online in the UK: MUBI UK / Curzon Home Cinema
Senegalese-French director Alain Gomis won his first Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Berlinale for his fourth feature fillm, Félicité, a Congolese-set musical drama with an international, postcolonial sensibility. It’s a poetic piece, though seemingly simple in its narrative, with a singular focus on a week or so in the life of nightclub singer and single mother Félicité (singer turned actor Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu), after whom the film is named. The movie’s complexity lies in its way of painting the inner life of our heroine through layers of global, cross-cultural references, from European poetry and classical music to the varied artistic traditions of different Congolese peoples, resulting in a sometimes tragic, often beatific and vivid portrait of Félicité and the cultural life of Kinshasa, the Congo’s impoverished capital. While resting before another gig, Felicité learns her 14-year-old son has been in a serious motorbike accident. She must find a huge sum of money – one million Congolese francs (or $600) – to pay for an emergency operation before he haemorrhages and loses his leg, if not dies.
The film opens with a close up on Felicité’s face, her expression one of a guarded, careful pleasure, and we see a brief, coy smile flash across her face at the unseen antics of the nightclub patrons around her, before she returns to her usual stoic visage. Singer/actor Mputu is breathtaking in her role and the film, even with all its artistic flare, lives or dies by her performance. Felicité, having to be tough to survive in her corrupt, patriarchal surroundings, does not speak her feelings, instead appearing impassive; accused of being a proud, difficult woman, she is often silent when not singing – the only time she allows herself to express emotion (Mputu is also an incredibly talented singer).
This character quality, coupled with Gomis’ realist storytelling when dealing with the harsh realities of Congolese life (as Felicité is calling in debts and even risking her life begging for alms from a local mob boss for her son, there is more than a whiff of the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days One Night), require Mputu to have an impossibly subtle yet expressive face to hint at Felicité’s thoughts and feelings – her stubborn bravery, her conniving intelligence, a hinted past of domestic violence. Much like in Barry Jenkin’s Oscar winning Moonlight, Gomis’ trust in Mputu’s quiet on-screen presence also brings the added dimension of black, African beauty to the screen – her skin, her natural hair, high hairline, round face and full body are a welcome antidote to Western standards of beauty that permeate independent cinema as much as Hollywood films. When Felicité finally allows herself to be vulnerable with a prospective lover, Mputu brings a warmth and joy to her gentle confession of love: “I like your way of being,” she quietly admits.
Gomis’s film slowly begins to unravel in its second act into something more impressionistic and surreal, replacing the lost kinetic energy of Felicité’s antagonistic, desperate mission to gather money. Some may feel the loss of Felicité’s steam and suspense in this latter half, but there is a joy in the slower contemplation of a new status quo within our lead’s life; one stand-out sequence shows Felicité dreaming, walking barefoot through the moonlit Congolese jungle, coming face to face with an okapi, a gentle “zebra giraffe” that essentially functions like the oft-used cinematic image of a wild deer in Western cinema – a beautiful, rare moment of trust from the wild. A slower pace also allows for Felicité’s musicality to resonate. Gomis made the movie with a Congolese superband, Le Kasai Allstars, who wrote and recorded most of the soundtrack in their signature Congotronic stylings – the band is made up of many members of five distinct Congolese ethnic groups, all with their own languages and culture, blended into an incredible sonic tour de force. Additional music is provided by an impressive amateur choir and orchestra (their performance of Arvo Pärt’s neoclassical My Heart is in the Highlands is particularly beautiful).
Overall, what Félicité lacks in tight narrative structure, it gains in poetry – in bringing cinematic life to the complex thoughts and passions of Félicité, in expressing that which is beyond language and reason. Gomis’ film also pulls off the difficult feat of being a character study that, despite its depth, isn’t blinkered or myopic, but instead routed in the socioeconomic realities and the rich cultural heritage of postcolonial Kinsasha and its peoples.
Felicite is available exclusively on MUBI UK, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.