An apparently insoluble romantic impasse resolves itself into double domesticity in “Billo,” Laura Muscardin’s joyous tale of a Senegalese fashion designer in Rome. Muscardin, whose considerably darker AIDS drama “Days” showed an equally impressive control of layered tone, has woven a lavishly peopled tapestry that feels at home in both a Senegalese village and a Roman junkyard. Neither an illegal-immigrant horror story nor a broad culture-clash comedy, quasi-documentary pic, with extremely personable hip-hop designer Thierno Thiam as the star of his own real-life story, skips gracefully through good times and bad. Delightful comedy deserves wider exposure.
Pic opens on the reflection of a campfire in Billo’s (Thiam) eye. This location, a beach in Senegal, segues quickly to a beach in Italy as Billo heads to Rome to make his fortune. Through his fellow Senegalese, Billo finds work selling pirated CDs and holes up in a junked car, finally relocating to a rented room, only to be mistakenly arrested as an Islamic terrorist.
Here, as elsewhere, Muscardin deftly balances comedy and ominous, Kafkaesque absurdity, as a no-nonsense female interrogator and an overeager defense attorney let their assumptions run away with them.
Billo eventually, and opportunely, finds a job with an upholsterer; a home with Pap (Paul N’Dour), a Senegalese sanitation worker who has lived in Italy for 10 years; and friendship with a gay couple doubly named Paolo (played by Marco Bonini, who co-scripted and exec produced, and Paolo Gasparini). Billo also finds a liberating if slightly kooky wife in Paolo’s lovestruck sister Laura (Susy Laude).
There’s only one problem: Billo also has a fiancee back in Senegal, his cousin Fatou (Carmen De Santos), whom he has loved since childhood. Near-identical scenes in which each woman begs a packing Billo to take her with him trigger a measure of angst in Billo until his marabout reminds him of the advantages of Islam, which allows up to four wives, magically banishing all guilt and responsibility. Interspersed throughout Billo’s sojourn in Italy are flashbacks to his childhood in the village of Mballing, dropped simply into his present-day existence without strain or fanfare. Fascinated by the gorgeous, vibrant colors of the fabrics his family dyes, young Billo sees his apprenticeship as a tailor as both a calling and a way to become rich enough to sway Fatou’s affluent, educated parents to accept him as a suitor.
Against the rigid rituals, clear class divisions and architectural simplicity of Mballing, Muscardin opposes a ditzy Rome — complete with family dinners where a gay son and his lover, and a daughter and her black fiance, are greeted with chirpy joy by mama (Luisa De Santis) and with glowering silence by papa (Mario De Santis).
Tolerance is not a simple matter of hugs and indulgence in pic’s unexpectedly complex moral landscape. Beneath the surface looms a thorny mass of differences to be negotiated, with women doing most of the heavy lifting. Yet the characters are sustained throughout by a sense of inner balance, continually finding their footing in a flow of events that avoids both cutesy serendipity and the inevitability that tends to plague biopics.
Tech credits on this cooperatively produced low-budgeter further pic’s carefully constructed casualness. Senegalese musician and co-producer Youssou N’Dour’s score adds to pic’s hybrid sense of identity. plussing pic’s happiliy hybrid ethnicity.