The collision between a failed Belgian inventor searching for his birth parents and a Quebecois man trying to preserve his father’s legacy yields about 10 contrivances too many in “Congorama.” Viewers partial to scribe-director Philippe Falardeau’s exceptionally showy brand of cleverness may warm to this overplotted comic drama, though just as many are likely to be put off by the multitude of engineered twists and pat ironies embedded in its tangled tale of illegitimate children, electric cars, stolen intellectual property and possibly even a kitchen sink (or two).
To be sure, the film’s climactic leap into a near-mystical realm suggests that nothing revealed over the course of the preceding 105 minutes should be mistaken for coincidence. Yet the suffocatingly neat construction strains credibility, leaving the central characters (played by Olivier Gourmet and Paul Ahmarani) feeling like the punchlines of an elaborate cosmic joke.
Forty-one-year-old engineer Michel Roy (Gourmet) lives in Belgium with his Congolese wife Alice (Claudia Tagbo), son Jules (Arnaud Mouithys) and novelist father Herve (vet French thesp Jean-Pierre Cassel). Herve, a sickly, wheelchair-bound man who once served as an activist in the Congo, one night abruptly tells Michel that he was adopted as an infant, and that he was in fact born in a barn somewhere in Quebec.
Hoping to get in touch with his biological parents, Michel takes a business trip to Canada and detours into the rural town of Sainte-Cecile, where a kindly priest (Gabriel Arcand) leads him into the path of resident Louis Legros (Ahmarani). Louis happens to be driving an electric car, a fact that instantly appeals to Michel’s scientific curiosity, though it also triggers a traumatic incident that brings act one to a literally screeching halt.
Pic abruptly jumps back in time, retracing Louis’ steps during the few days before his fateful encounter with Michel. New information is divulged concerning Louis’ late father, a brilliant inventor who had previously worked at the national power company, and whose revolutionary research Louis is determined to bring to light.
Mysterious parallels between Michel and Louis, from their unconventional birthplaces (Louis was born at the 1967 Montreal expo, which is shown in home-movie flashback) to their connections to the world of electronics, are ultimately revealed to be part of an intricate narrative design — one in which even hidden bloodlines run deep and lost birthrights have a way of reasserting themselves. The means by which the tale arrives at this conclusion, however, are so consistently far-fetched and conveniently manufactured as to beggar belief.
In spite of the manipulations around them, thesps remain firmly grounded in the human world. Gourmet, best known for his work with Belgian brothers Jean-Luc and Pierre Dardenne, remains the most compellingly nondescript of actors, while the engaging Ahmarani effectively hijacks pic’s point of view at the midway point without missing a beat.
Both thesps evince a gift for light comedy that keeps the mood reasonably upbeat for a film with this much baggage.
Technically, “Congorama” is an unobtrusive marvel. Falardeau and editor Frederique Boos smoothly handle scenes shot from multiple angles for that “gotcha” effect, while a wealth of visual clues and motifs are carefully if somewhat obviously coded into pic’s frames, sharply lensed by Andre Turpin.