For a film that includes two rapes and the attempted torching of an entire village, Tunde Kelani’s “The Narrow Path” extends the filmmaker’s consistent ability to deliver low-budget films that have an affable, often jaunty, tone. As always with the leading voice in Nigeria’s independent video feature movement, storytelling takes the form of a fable — in this case, about a courtship that threatens to collapse before the wedding night, and the strife that ensues; events lead to a happy ending with a politically progressive message. A sure hitmaker locally and in West African venues, pic deserves fest programmers’ attention worldwide.
As important as Ousmane Sembene and Abderrhamane Sissako are to presenting African cinema beyond the continent, Kelani is arguably more influential than these two at home, and has played a key role in establishing one of Africa’s few real film industries in Nigeria (often dubbed “Nollywood”). Production, unlike classical Francophone co-productions, is largely homegrown, and with primary concern for playing to local auds.
While Kelani is hardly in Sembene’s or Sissako’s class as an artist, the sense of village life, relationships and politics in “The Narrow Path” equals and may well surpass a similar setting portrayed in Sembene’s recent village tale, “Moolaade.”
Facing the prospect of an ersatz bidding war among suitors in various nearby villages, pretty Awero (Sola Asedeko) whittles the candidates down to clumsy hunter Odejimi (Seyi Fasuyi) and effete rich man Lapade (Ayo Badmus), and settles on Odejimi. Dauda (Segun Adefila), a shady but charismatic fellow from the city (as Lagos is referred to here), seems ineffectual in his come-ons to Awero, until he rapes her one night in a remote corner of the village.
Odejimi, who has already had a somewhat comical faceoff with Lapade, accidentally shoots his rival in the jungle while hunting. Although no one buys blowhard Lapade’s true claim that Odejimi shot him, the incident has tainted Odejimi’s romantic vision of courtship and marriage. A culturally worse discovery on the wedding night sours him on life with his bride-to-be.
Kelani applies a fluid and casual filmmaking hand that invites the viewer to participate in the village folderol. Evincing a Shakespearean influence, dramatic conflict (men from the two villages are on the verge of war by the final act) is preceded by jolly comedy that introduces likable characters who simply want to lead happy lives, with a narrative leading inevitably to reconciliation conducted by women.
Just this side of annoyingly broad, the perfs Kelani draws out of his actors fully support the fable’s basic nature.
If there’s a continuing problem with Kelani’s movies, it’s a tendency for incredibly insipid, intrusive and low-grade synthesizer music on the soundtrack (by Seun Owoaje). Locations in Nigeria and Benin are used naturally, never for picture-postcard effect.