Filming in four African countries and obviously aiming to offer a grand summary of that continent’s recent experience, veteran Malian helmer Souleymane Cisse in “Waati” turns out a monument of turgid bombast that should serve as a lasting example of thematic overreaching. While beautifully lensed in scenic regions from the Sahara to South Africa, pic lets its human reality get swallowed up in billows of windy attitudinizing and overly simplistic political allegory. Holding little appeal even for devotees of current African cinema, pic should find its career limited to the international fest circuit.
Story opens with a rare moment of charm as a South African grandmother spins a fable of animals and humans vying for control of the world. If Cisse had stayed with Africans and their folklore, what follows might have had an air of involving authenticity. Instead, he quickly plunges into a cartoonish account of apartheid, centered on Little Nandi and her family, who live in a rural region where all whites are Snidely Whiplash-like brutes and blacks exist in a state of cowed submissiveness. For nearly an hour, tale describes this milieu without making a single concession to subtlety.
The characters never emerge from the level of crude abstractions, and if that’s unfortunate for the laughably evil whites, it’s even more so for the put-upon blacks, whose uncomplaining servitude deprives them of both dignity and dimension.
Nandi goes off to school, but things remain miserable for her family. When policemen confront them for walking on a beach that’s off-limits to blacks, her father and brother are gunned down and Nandi, after killing a policeman, flees for her life.
Landing in the Ivory Coast, she continues her education in a setting of all-black harmony and cultural awareness that is idealized to the point of utter blandness. She meets a handsome young man, Solofa, who wants to marry her but gets only her agreement to accompany him on a humanitarian mission to his tribal home near Timbuktu.
Gorgeous throughout, pic’s lensing hits a high point in these desert scenes. Nandi, however, seems to grow more self-absorbed as the tale continues, so rather than committing to Solofa and the humanitarian work, she sets off for the new South Africa, taking along a little Taureg girl as her de facto daughter. Surprisingly, her homeland seems never to have heard of President Nelson Mandela , because story’s end has her again confronted with brutish, all-white officialdom; it sends her packing but leaves her aggrieved self-absorption quite intact.
Cisse evidently set out to say something about injustice and recent changes in Africa, but his approach is so stiffly mannered as to produce both tedium and exasperation, especially at how little credit it allows blacks for hard-fought battles that reflect courage, commitment and shrewd compromise rather than a wan martyrdom.
“Waati” seems made by a filmmaker more concerned with his own self-importance than with the complex experiences and issues it nominally treats.