While opening with sensational newspaper headlines trumpeting actual cases of abuse and murder by Islamic teachers, first-time Senegalese helmer Amadou Thior then weaves a deliberately understated tale of one boy who rebels against his tyrannical keeper. Extremely modest in scope and intent, pic is well served by the naturalness of its actors and the small canvas of its always credible action. Quiet virtues and video format limit potential release, but topical subject-matter (students are referred to as “talibe”) may gain pic cable airing.
“Almodou” is a term employed to describe an increasing problem in parts of Muslim Africa: Boys sent in good faith by their parents to holy men, in order to study the Koran, who are instead forced into beggar gangs to enrich the coffers of their religious guardians.
Thior’s intrepid hero Modou (Doudou Guillaume Faye) is a shrewd but likeable kid and a budding entrepreneur, parlaying his held-back rice and sugar “earnings” into cash so he can run away to visit his mother. But he’s no match for the villain of the piece, the marabout Serigne (Bassirou Diakhate), a cruel lazy parasite with a passion for women and gambling and the ability to charm unsuspecting parents with the fervor of his dedication.
Modou’s fellow students are far too fearful and too fully indoctrinated to back his rebellion. Even the diminutive Moussa (Moustapha Niang), Modou’s best buddy, lectures him on the virtues of blind obedience.
Modou’s only allies are adults: a kindly female donut vendor and a strapping fellow who rents bicycles. When, thanks to the resident stool pigeon, Modou’s squirreled-away savings fall prey to Serigne, Modou steals from the marabout only to be caught and severely beaten.
Salvation comes in the unlikely form of a winning sweepstakes ticket that sends Modou, along with a huge truckload of provisions, back to his village in triumph.
Much of the film is wordless, following Modou as he begs, barters, confides, dreams or steals his way in the world. A rock beat drives the urban scenes, as he and Moussa wend through busy traffic. A meditative solo mbira — an African thumb piano — underscores the more sedately slo-mo lap-dissolves of their rare time-outs.
Thior uses title cards to emphasize the wide disparity between his upbeat fable and the ongoing reality that no lottery ticket will ever resolve. The fact that everyone can see what’s going on makes the marabout’s abuses seem more endemic to the system than symptomatic of individual pathology.
Certainly, that was the conclusion reached by Islamic teachers in Senegal and Ghana who decreed a fatwa, condemning the highly controversial film and its director after a July television airing.
Thior, who worked as a.d. on a couple of Ousmane Sembene’s films, has chosen a simpler, more prosaic palette for his own work. Medoune Ndiaye’s video lensing, though somewhat underwhelming, feels both realistic and comfortably lived-in.