A Senegalese-born French woman is torn between her father's rational approach to life and the radically different worldview of a handsome local who believes in spells and witchcraft in Belgian helmer Manuel Poutte's "Distant Tremors."

A Senegalese-born French woman is torn between her father’s rational approach to life and the radically different worldview of a handsome local who believes in spells and witchcraft in Belgian helmer Manuel Poutte’s “Distant Tremors.” Slow-burning, at times mesmerizing tale starts in modern-day Senegal before going on a “Heart of Darkness”-like voyage that takes on almost mythical dimensions. Beyond Francophone territories, pic could work its magic at festivals and in niche release by adventurous distribs.

Marie (Amelie Daure) — who, according to her physician father, Jean (Daniel Duval), has remained a child even though she now looks like a woman — is secretly attracted to Senegalese native Bandiougou (Senegalese musician Papa Malick N’Diaye). He boats people up and down the river and can’t wait to flee his provincial town to join his g.f. in Europe.

When Bandiougou receives a letter informing him that he can pick up his visa in Dakar, Marie, who reads the letter to him, lies and tells him his request has been rejected and his g.f. wants to break off all contact. Heartbroken, Bandiougou is now even more bent on leaving, thinking the double rejection might be a punishment for deserting his birth village, where he was initiated as a keeper of the spirits.

A visit from Jean’s antique-dealer friend Boris (Jean-Francois Stevenin) seems to offer a solution: If Bandiougou travels upstream with the portly Frenchman to find a fetish statue for one of his clients, Boris will arrange a visa. Marie also decides to join the expedition, which leaves overbearing Jean little choice but to do the same.

The scenes in the village, which roughly take up the first hour, are shot mostly in daylight and have a casual, chatty air, with lenser Antoine Roch not yet fully exploiting his widescreen canvas. The visual style seems to reflect Jean’s practical nature.

However, as literal and symbolic darkness invades the film during the long voyage by boat — didn’t the characters ever watch “Apocalypse Now”? — the menacing and magical aspects become more prominent, culminating in a breathtaking night scene on the river. Bandiougou’s belief in a world order ruled by spirits, and understandable only through symbols, makes a lot more sense here.

The fact that a lie by Marie seems to have set everything in motion makes her the center of the narrative. As a European born and raised in Africa, she literally stands between the two divergent worldviews of the men in her life. Like the viewer, she tries to navigate her own course.

Acting from the French pros is fine, though N’Diaye’s line readings in French (clearly not his first language) are as flat as the river on a windless day. Phil Marie’s score is essentially one-note but suited to the material. Rest of the tech package is fine.

Distant Tremors

Belgium

Production

A Dolce Vita production, in association with Formosa Prods. (International sales: Wide Management, Paris.) Produced by Boris Van Gils, Michael Goldberg. Directed by Manuel Poutte. Screenplay, Poutte, Elizabeth Diot.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Antoine Roch; editor, Yves Dorme; music, Phil Marie; production designer, Francoise Joset; costume designers, Charlie Kagi Sebasoni, Mame Fagueye Ba; sound (Dolby), Fabrice Grizard. Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival (competing), July 8, 2008. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Amelie Daure, Papa Malick N'Diaye, Daniel Duval, Jean-Francois Stevenin. (French dialogue)
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