A father’s betrayal of his son amid the encroaching chaos of Chad’s endless civil war is treated with a deeply somber approach in Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s “A Screaming Man.” Haroun’s tender but unsentimental regard for his characters allows his storytelling a natural gravitas thoroughly suited to the simultaneously unfolding private and national tragedies. Directed with great confidence and control, and filled with stretches of quiet contemplation, this is pure-grade art cinema for high-end distribs, preceded by a tour of fests hungry for accomplished African films.
Haroun continues his focus on the schisms between fathers and sons, but in contrast to his exquisite second work, “Abouna,” he turns his attention here to the father — who, in this case, makes a morally awful choice that places his own welfare ahead of his son’s. While Haroun’s more recent 2006 “Daratt” seemed like a slight interim project, this is a substantial work that finds its own steady tempo and purpose early and never lets up.
A beautiful opening shot shows father Adam (Youssouf Djaoro) playing in the pool with adult son Abdel (Diouc Koma) in a game of who can stay underwater the longest. If there’s a war going on, it feels far away, while the moment suggests what this relationship has been like since Abdel was born. Abdel assists Adam in managing the operation of a pool at a resort hotel, recently bought by a Chinese business concern repped by Madame Wang (Heling Li).
Signs of change amid the everyday calm of hotel life arise when Adam’s friend and hotel cook David (Marius Yelolo) is laid off. At home with wife Mariam (Hadje Fatime Ngoua), Adam seems unfazed by news reports of mounting rebel attacks on the Chadian army. But the real shock to Adam comes when Madame Wang informs him that Abdel will now be the only pool attendant and that Adam has been reassigned to serve as hotel gatekeeper. For this former swimming medalist (“Champion” is how David addresses Adam), “the pool is my life,” and the change momentarily shatters the 55-year-old man’s sense of purpose.
Haroun’s only political stroke is the presence of a local district chief (Emil Abossolo M’Bo) who has pestered Adam to donate cash to support the national troops (from which the chief skims a percentage). This apparently superfluous detail proves critical in Adam’s fateful decision to send Abdel instead of cash as his contribution to the war cause: From his bedroom window, Adam watches Abdel forcibly taken by troops and dragooned into the army.
Although Djaoro is an actor of limited range, his face and eyes convey the father’s growing wave of guilt as he reassumes his post as pool attendant, a pyrrhic victory frustrated by the presence of Abdel’s g.f., Djeneba (Djeneba Kone). These scenes, including a lovely interlude in which Djeneba bursts into a song of lament, recall “Abouna’s” contemplative sections, and the film’s concern for the tragic consequences of Adam’s actions is carried through to a finale dominated by haunting images of a river.
Haroun’s films always look superb, and d.p. Laurent Brunet skillfully uses widescreen to frame the characters in larger settings — the pool, the hotel’s well-appointed interiors, city streets and, finally, the massive desert outside the city. Wasis Diop’s sparingly used score is just this side of sentimental. A closing credit citation (providing pic’s title) from author Aime Cesaire is, given the power of Haroun’s images to convey ideas and feelings, quite unnecessary.