(French, Fon and Yoruba dialogue.)
An offbeat idea whose development eventually does too little to encourage viewer engagement, the quasi-nonfiction narrative “Divine Body” follows a European luxury car as it’s passed from owner to owner – and from function to function – in the West African republic Benin. Modest parable is more about communities than individuals, but helmer Dominique Loreau’s resistance to pulling us in via human interest grows tedious after a while. Fest and other programmers looking for an unusual take on African or Third World economic/cultural currents might give it a look.
The title “body” is a used black Peugeot arriving – sans any sacred value – by boat in the port city Cotonou. It’s received by Simon, one of a group of carefree Europeans whose life here seems to consist of little more than beach trips and bar outings. The auto keeps breaking down, however, and, after one last stranding, an exasperated Simon simply hands it over to house servant Joseph, who’d been coveting the vehicle anyway.
Joseph promptly quits Simon’s employ and, after wowing his neighbors with this grand acquisition, uses it as a freelance taxi. The constant fare-haggling doesn’t make him any happier, though (nor does his wife’s increased irritability), so the car’s continued stall-outs soon lead him to abandon it.
The already semi-stripped clunker is spied by sculptor Simonet. He saws, blowtorches and solders away at its “carcass,” using bits to create a large metal totem that is then borne away by commissioning elders to a faraway village. There, it becomes a part of everyday life. The car’s utilitarian transition from pleasure to commerce to spiritual sustenance is thus complete.
Loreau goes for a casually-slung, documentary-style presentation that’s intriguing at first, even if the initial leading characters’ interior lives remain rather too tabula rasa. This arms-length approach grows quite wearying once the car starts becoming religious sculpture – a craftsperson/delivery process that takes an interminable half-hour-plus, with character involvement now reduced to nil.
Having taken the trouble to contrive a fictional storyline, then barely noticing it in favor of slice-of-life details, Loreau has made a film that is neither fish nor fowl. Dramatic possibilities are ignored; there’s scant sense of how much time has passed at any point; the local cultures are viewed so obtusely that offshore auds can gain little insight. Bits of humor, conflict and color simply flash by. Even the overall metaphorical weight of a First World commodity-fetish item ending up as a tribal “iron ram” deity is understated to the point of so-what.
Tech package is well handled, though any temptation to use scenic/local-dress splendor, occasional sensuous music and other aspects to dynamic effect is stubbornly resisted by slack editing.