One of the more challenging viewing experiences at Cannes this year, “Genesis” by Mali director Cheick Oumar Sissoko should be prepared for with a close rereading of the Bible. So dense and poetic is Jean-Louis Sagot-Durvauroux’s screenplay and so relentlessly African the idiom that viewers, like Noah, often find themselves adrift in high water. Sissoko uses magnificent African desert vistas as his backdrop for this highly symbolic, often theatrical version of Bible stories. The one contemporary message that comes through is the need for all men to become true brothers so that peace can be achieved. Due to its difficulty, however, pic may tally its largest audiences at Cannes, followed by African film festivals and engagements in appreciative niches like Paris.
Film’s most curious angle is, of course, casting Africans in all the roles, a choice that certainly puts a new spin on an old story. As the press book suggests, if Adam and Eve were African, why not Jacob? Sissoko uses his native cultural heritage to advantage, drawing curious parallels to biblical hunting and agricultural societies.
Datelined 300 years after the Flood, story covers chapters 23 to 37 of Genesis. Esau (singer Salif Keita), whose birthright was stolen by his younger brother Jacob, plots revenge on a mountaintop surrounded by his fellow hunters.
Jacob, played by the great stage actor Sotigui Kouyate, is a deathly serious patriarch in mourning for his favorite son Joseph. When his daughter Dina (Fatoumata Diawara) wants to marry the son of Hamor the Canaanite, her brothers demand that all the Canaanites be circumcised. After the bloody deeds are done, Jacob’s treacherous shepherd sons attack the weakened men and, in a stomach-turning scene of all-too-modern connotations, murder every male in Hamor’s village. Jacob is horrified.
Face to face with Esau, Jacob learns that his favorite son, Joseph, is not dead, as he thought, but has been sold to merchants and is now a rich man in Egypt. The two rival patriarchs Jacob and Esau make peace at last and send their people across the mountains, toward Egypt. Abstruse as much of the storytelling is, with some long repetitive stretches, Sissoko’s directing never loses sight of the story’s epic scope and universal relevance. Lionel Cousin’s lensing perfectly expresses the wondrous natural beauty of the African landscape, photographed around a massive rock formation in the Sahel desert.
Production and costume designer Bogolan Kasobane and his team of artists, who worked on Sissoko’s previous epic, “Guimba,” have researched ancient fabrics and forms, creating an imaginative array of eye-catching costumes and headdresses. Equally refined is the score from Pierre Sauvageot and Michel Risse of Decor Sonore, which beautifully blends contemporary African music sounds with traditional ones.