Using a simple storytelling style that grows stronger with each passing scene, “Dry Season” draws the viewer into its small two-character drama set in post-war Chad, while it offers a deep reflection on injustice and frustrated revenge. Writer-director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (“Bye Bye Africa,” “Abouna”) almost dispenses with words in this fable-like tale, told through moody glares and askance glances. As the only African film competing in Venice, it should stir new interest in sub-Saharan filmmaking and find its way to arthouse auds willing to try something new.
Film chalks up a success for Vienna’s New Crowned Hope, which commissioned seven films from non-Western cultures to celebrate Mozart’s 250th anniversary. “Dry Season” is connected thematically to the composer’s “La clemenza di Tito,” also dealing with the need for forgiveness and reconciliation.
Set in the aftermath of Chad’s 40-year civil war, the film probes the very topical problem of how former enemies can live together, given the latent hatred that is waiting to burst out.
In the wake of a government amnesty in Chad, war criminals were let off scot-free. Unwilling to accept this lack of justice, the grandfather of 16-year-old Atim (Ali Bacha Barkai) sends him to the city to kill Nassara (Youssouf Djaoro), the man who murdered Atim’s father before he was even born.
Arriving in the big city with his father’s gun, Atim finds his way to Nassara’s dusty bakery with almost magical ease. But he postpones his grim mission when he comes face to face with the gruff, scarred baker. Unexpectedly Nassara takes the boy under his wing as the son he doesn’t have and offers to teach his profession.
Telling himself he’ll shoot the baker later, Atim is drawn into Nassara’s life and that of his pregnant young wife Aicha (Aziza Hisseine).
Using moments of quiet humor and social exchange, Haroun makes the viewer participate in Atim’s mixed emotions. His rock-like determination not to soften toward the older man is sorely tested as Nassara assumes the role of a father figure in his life. Finale is sharp, fast and unexpected.
It takes some time to find the conscience behind young Bacha Barkai’s furrowed brow and hate-filled stares; paradoxically, Djaoro’s open-faced, self-confident perf as the villain is far more likeable and easy to relate to. This confusion between good and bad helps create shifting ethical sands under these sharply drawn characters.
The story is lensed by cinematographer Abraham Haile Biru and edited by Marie-Helene Dozo with unencumbered simplicity. An outstanding score by Wasis Diop is equally low-key.