Aware of the fact that he will be dead the next day, an apparently healthy Senegalese man says his goodbyes in “Today,” the third feature from French-Senegalese helmer Alain Gomis (“Andalucia”). As the man’s hours pass, the loosely assembled pic accumulates poignancy despite the fact the protag himself, played by U.S. poet-actor Saul Williams (“Slam”), remains something of a mystery. Whether auds will go along for the ride depends on their tolerance level for quietly observational filmmaking that leaves much of the work up to the viewer. Berlinale competish slot should help get the pic noticed internationally, at least at fests.
“Today” opens with the written explanation that Death sometimes still warns that it is coming. When Satche (Williams) wakes up in the house of his mother, as tradition dictates, it is clear that he has been warned. He starts the day by listening to his extended family discuss his virtues and vices before he sets out to meet others. As Satche moves into the streets, his entire hometown seems to be aware that he will soon be gone, and they offer him gifts and gather around him in what builds to something akin to a funeral procession, only a lot more joyous.
It is not the last time the rites of the following days are anticipated. In one of the film’s simplest yet most evocative scenes, Satche visits his uncle (Jean Mendy), an embalmer who shows him how he will be washed the next day. Other people he encounters during his round of goodbyes include a group of guy friends and several street protestors, who all voice generic complaints about the state of the country, though little is otherwise made of the fact that Satche studied in the U.S. but then decided to return home.
Meetings with a former lover (Aissa Maiga) and, toward the end of the day, his wife (Anisia Uzeyman) and their children, provide some insight into how Satche views the world, though his personality and personal history remain largely unilluminated. Instead, Gomis focuses on Satche’s gaze, tinged with a sense of encroaching mortality that increasingly makes him see the world around him in a different light. Shots of his children playing in the courtyard, or of his decision to finally repair a faulty door handle, suddenly become charged with deeper meanings.
Throughout, Williams is a solid presence who anchors the movie with ease; his Satche is an upright man, neither stoic nor particularly sad about what is about to happen to him. All others are bit players and rarely strike a false note, with Maiga and Uzeyman the standouts.
Versatile d.p. Crystel Fournier (“Tomboy”) keeps things light and intuitive, though her digital camerawork occasionally lacks detail, especially in the numerous contre-jour shots. Sound design is atmospheric.