There are two Alain Gomises that show up in Felicite, the fourth feature-length by the French-Senegalese auteur.
Scratch that. On second thought, Felicite is actually two separate films helmed by one person. Mr. Gomis’ handheld, documentary, gritty-with-a-touch-of-realism camera work is present throughout the film’s extended running time. The first part has a linear enough narrative and plays out with some conviction. The titular character, Felicite is a single mother struggling to get by in the tough streets of Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Felicite (Vero Tshanda Beya Mputu) ekes out a living as a bar singer, performing with a band, the Kasai All-stars at night and taking care of mundane domestic duties, like attempting to light up her second-hand refrigerator during the day. She fends off advances from the neighborhood handyman, Tabu (Papi Mpaka) who spends his nights, drunk and in love, emboldened by the raw power of Felicite’s music.
The scenes of Felicite performing are some of the film’s strongest and Beya Mputu is a strong, almost visceral presence as she evokes as many primal emotions dancing and swinging her waist, as she does while passive and at rest. Gomis is on to something with her casting and she gives generously as much as her director demands of her.
Felicite receives news that her son has been involved in a motorbike accident and the first half of the film calls to mind the Dardenne brothers’ Marion Cotillard vehicle, Two Days, One Night. In one instructive scene that reflects the strength and circumstances of countless African women, hours after receiving this tragic news, Felicite goes to work, singing and dancing like her life depends on it.
Beyond speaking to the maxim that the show must go on, this singular act demonstrates the fierce resolve that women on the continent must live through. Their personal lives may be in shambles, relationships a mess, but they suck it all up, hold it in and get the job done. Because that is what they have to do.
In any case, Gomis isn’t particularly interested in this predicament even though for a while, he makes viewers accompany Felicite as she struggles to raise the money that will help her son get better. She stands up to a debtor, soaks in insults from her mother and endures the humiliation of going back to the boy’s father to ask for help. In the face of tragedy, Felicite is consumed with a righteous resolve and her pride shines through a near-violent and degrading experience with a local mob boss.
In the hands of a less capable actress, Felicite would have dissolved into a blubbering pool at this point, playing on emotions and tugging on heartstrings. But Ms. Beya Mputu’s steely gaze and passive aggressive control makes it quite clear that her Felicite isn’t here for your pity. She knows what is at stake, recognizes the hand that life has dealt her, and immediately goes about seeking ways to balance the order.
Another director would (wisely) have followed this story to its logical conclusion- she saves the day or comes in seconds too late. But Gomis is preoccupied with other matters that range from the realistic to the whimsical. He wraps up this story arc quickly. Felicite brings her son home and then the second part of the films, shot in a loose documentary style follows the heroine as she merely exists, dealing with her own feelings. She sinks into depression, loses her voice for a spell and considers the imperfect affections of Tabu. She also disappears into the woods at night to meditate by herself with only water bodies as a companion, and there are segments devoted to the Kinshasa Symphonic Orchestra performing somber classic tunes. At this point, nothing seems to make narrative sense and audiences are urged to task themselves mentally to at least keep up with Gomis.
His direction is unhurried and the pacing of the film is quite laborious. Gomis proves to be self-indulgent as his film proceeds to run around in circles, arriving nowhere and lacking any cohesion, diluting what could have been a solid outing. Felicite may win all the awards, but good luck finding anyone that actually warms up to the film.