(French and Wolof dialogue)
Making a belated but assured return to features since writing and co-helming “La vie est belle” with Benoit Lamy in 1987, Congolese filmer Mweze Ngangura scores big with “I.D.,” a rich multicultural romp involving a Congolese king and diverse denizens of an ethnic enclave in contempo Brussels. Pic, which has already proved an audience favorite at Milan’s African Cinema fest, has major crossover potential for specialized distribs.
Steeped in tradition and decked out in the regal trappings of his coronation — the “identity pieces” of the movie’s original title that he wears over a sober business suit — Mani Kongo, King of the Bakongo (Gerard Essomba, himself the grandson of a king) returns to Brussels in search of the daughter, Mwana-Mwata (Dominique Mesa), he left behind to pursue her studies on a brief visit long ago.
Unbeknownst to him, she’s been in prison due to some unexplained connection with preening pimp Viva-Wa-Viva (Muanza Goutier), but is now dating mulatto taxi driver Chaka-Jo (composer Jean-Louis Daulne), who happened to pick up her dad at the airport and has since befriended him.
In his search for Mwana, King Kongo gets short shrift from various authorities including the local embassy and the girls’ school where she boarded.
Meanwhile, cop Jefke Schengen (Herbert Flack), a nostalgic former colonial administrator, presses Mwana into dancing at a club that becomes the latest venue for a series of bizarre robberies involving a guy with an African mask and a blowpipe.
After further twists, turns and near-misses between characters, a fourth-quarter romantic subplot between Mwana’s roommate, Safi (Cecilia Kankonda), and newly arrived royal nephew Mayele (Thilombo Lubambu) — who, of course, have no idea of their true linkage — accelerates pic to a merry close.
Seven years in the making, but showing no signs of its production span, pic is rich in multilevel meaning, flawlessly navigating provocative points about racism, tradition, class struggles, cultural identity and corruption without trivializing royal pain or sacrificing entertainment value. While never exactly laugh-out-loud funny, tale has a meticulous and logical humor that springs from the essential likability of the characters, even the most dastardly of whom are hinted to be softies at heart.
Tech and acting credits are blue-blood all the way, with the large ensemble cast meshing well. Some of the flavorsome locals were discovered by Ngangura in his 1995 docu “Letter to Makura,” while soukous singer Papa Wemba, star of “La vie est belle,” cameos in a performance of his own title tune.