A brave and stylish attempt to invent a new crime genre, “Saraka Bo” looks set to reach a small but select Euro audience before ending up on high-minded cable, with perhaps an arthouse release elsewhere. Veteran helmer Denis Amar’s return to the bigscreen after a seven-year stint in telefilms is a bid to give modern-day France’s cultural diversity a twist or two beyond the ghetto violence in such pics as Mathieu Kassovitz’s “Hate” and Thomas Gilou’s “Rai.” Unlikely to spawn imitators, “Saraka Bo” may have to be shelved in vid stores under the category of cultural curio, though pic deserves more publicity than it has thus far received.
Movie is adapted from the novel by Tobie Nathan, a controversial French academic who heads research into what he calls “ethno-psychiatry.” As such, Amar’s cinematic license is somewhat curbed by the need to explain the tenets of Nathan’s new science and how it deals with the problems of immigrants in France by exploring the psychological underpinnings of their native beliefs. Title is an Arab-Bambara term meaning “produce the offerings.”
The movie opens in an African neighborhood of Paris with the grisly discovery of the bodies of two young black women who have been ritually mutilated and hung from the ceiling wearing Malian masks. The investigation by Diamant, a tough-mind ‘tec superbly played by veteran Richard Bohringer, points to Cisse (Sotigui Kouyate), an immigrant from Mali, and his beautiful 18-year-old daughter, Daniele (Aissa Maiga).
Diamant, a fact-loving product of Western society, soon realizes Cisse’s confession is not only full of holes but also totally mystifying. Enter Professor Taieb (Yvan Attal), an Egypt-born Frenchman based on Nathan. Taieb locks horns with the empirical Diamant, but eventually convinces him of an underlying psychosis guiding Cisse’s self-incrimination.
Other suspects then come out of the woodwork. Snow White, a nightclub owner played by Hubert Kounde (the French-African lead in “Hate”), tells Diamant of a primitive-arts auctioneer who sleeps only with African women. In the meantime, Taieb invites Diamant into his group therapy sessions with troubled immigrants so the cop can see for himself the complexity of understanding motives of people from non-Western cultures.
With its two white guys fretting and fighting over the fate of African immigrants, pic veers dangerously close to being paternalistic, but manages always to steer the action back to Cisse and Daniele before audiences grow too uncomfortable. Attal, as the Taieb/Nathan character, is given the thankless task of playing a sensitive know-it-all whose presence usually slows the proceedings to a professorial pace.
Kouyate, a Malian actor known to Paris theatergoers for his magisterial perf in Peter Brook’s “Mahabarata,” portrays the querulous Cisse expertly. Newcomer Aissa is likewise adept as the irresistible young girl. Unfortunately, the secondary characters, especially the white auctioneer and his wife, are cartoonishly scripted, in marked contrast to the psychological polish lavished on the leads.
Tech credits are excellent. Lenser Manuel Teran has crafted an evocative and often exotic visual treat, both in and out of Paris’ African ghetto. Zairian composer Lokua Kanza, along with Jean-Claude Petit, delivers a superb soundtrack of African melodies, and interiors by production designer Ambre Fernandez have a weird theatrical flavor that befits the elaborate mind games.