Senegal’s Oscar submission Félicité has already played in Seattle twice. First at SIFF’s festival this summer and then again at the French mini-festival hosted this autumn. After a debut at Berlin, the film gained quick notoriety and eventually landed on the shortlist for best foreign language feature. Now a step away from a golden invitation, this story of a motherhood’s enduring commitment, paired with South Africa’s LGBT film The Wound, ushers us through a year of rich African cinema.
In Alain Gomis’ Félicité, Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu as the title character is a singer growing increasingly stoic as her son’s injuries sap her world. Teaming with an alcoholic handman Tabu (Papi Mpaka), Félicité handles the helplessness of her son and the inconsistency of her self-destructing suitor. In a rich musical culture, Félicité dwindles as she nears a dangerous point, intriguingly examined through a dark meandering dream sequence. The film is very much two parts. The first half mirrors similar foreign affairs Graduation (Cristian Mungiu) and Ma Rosa (Brillante Mendoza)–valuable 2016 holdovers contenders–with familial commitment stretching moral imperatives, though Félicité lacks the focus of the former or the tension of the latter. The second half is a tad listless, Félicité reconstructing herself while tangling with her exhaustion. There seemed to be some symbolism being attempted, but nothing landed solidly.
The foreign language shortlist is often a source of mystery. Each country has the option to submit a film from their own country. Israel chooses the best picture winner from their country’s awards, landing shortlist with Foxtrot (about which I’ve heard few good things). Also included are Loveless from Russia, a popular follow-up to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan. Germany’s In the Fade is said to have a good performance by Diane Kruger but little else of substance. Lebanon’s The Insult and Hungary’s On Body and Soul are floated in, banking on great word from their festival circuits. The Square, recently reviewed, is accessible commentary on the modern art scene expected to win. Chile’s LGBT drama A Fantastic Woman is my most anticipated film of February, even with Black Panther debuting. The Wound, caught at LGBT film festival TWIST, was a rare glimpse at difference in tribal culture that, though slow, exemplified the significance of landing on these shortlists. Félicité has a cultural richness that allows escapism from a tremendous onslaught of misfortune. Félicité losing joy in her singing, increasingly passionate and then painfully distant and then not at all, along with traditional performances from Senegalese orchestras, set in blue tinged spaces, highlight the narrative. Emotional connection is gained through the performances, infinitely more powerful than the nostalgic fun of Baby Driver or even the conflicted Call Me By Your Name score. Miniature operas, not subtitled, portrayed all the turmoil in Félicité’s month. This vibrant film portrayed filmmaking in a non-Western culture and added a bit to my understanding of Senegal. Spreading the diversity is more valuable in this category than including all of the respected films. I adore BPM (Beats per Minute), France’s precisely edited AIDS drama with its brilliant ensemble and nonstop gripping whirlwind narrative. It’s really fine that it got “snubbed”. Same for Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father. French cinema doesn’t need a massive push, and Netflix shoved Jolie’s project right on our queues.