The tumultuous recent history of the Ivory Coast is refracted through the ever-shifting identity of the title character in “Run,” an impressive if not fully realized first feature from French-Ivorian writer-director Philippe Lacote. Retracing the strange, winding road that led an ordinary young man to assassinate the prime minister of his country, this elliptical coming-of-age fable manages to feel dreamy, moody and picaresque by turns, punctuated by moments of startling violence, and gently imbued with a sense of mysticism rooted in African folklore. But in assessing the toll of civil war on a nation’s psyche, Lacote too often mistakes listlessness for lyricism, and his treatment of its protagonist’s story in heavily symbolic terms tends to short-circuit emotional investment over the long haul.
The first Ivorian feature ever selected to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, this $2.1 million-budgeted production has a lot riding on it, including the hopes of the newly resurgent film industry that produced it. But while healthy festival play is assured following the film’s Un Certain Regard bow, critical response looks to be polite but mixed, spelling limited arthouse exposure beyond Francophone territories.
In a prologue that cuts suddenly from eerie silence to mass chaos, a young man (Abdoul Karim Konate) introduces himself in voiceover as Run, so named because he has always been forced to flee from those trying to hunt him down — not without good reason in this case, as he’s just shot and killed his nation’s prime minister. As Run seeks shelter with his older friend and dissident Assa (Isaach De Bankole), his attempts to stay hidden from the authorities are interlaced with coming-of-age flashbacks that seek to illuminate both his specific journey and the generally surreal, harrowing experience of life in a crisis-ridden African nation.
These flashbacks fall into three discrete chapters, each centered around a figure who will, for better or worse, serve as a mentor of sorts. The first episode finds young Run (played by Abdoul Bah), a boy from jungle upbringing, apprenticing himself to a wise old rainmaker, Master Tourou (Rasmane Ouedraogo). Scenes of the young lad learning to divine nature’s spiritual secrets afford some of the film’s lovelier images of verdant undergrowth and a shimmering silver moon (courtesy of d.p. Daniel Miller), establishing a deceptively serene mood that is swiftly ruptured by Run’s first and certainly not last flirtation with senseless violence.
Happier times await Run in the second chapter when he literally bumps into Gladys (Reine Sali Coulibaly), a heavy-set woman and professional eater who goes by the stage name Greedy Gladys. She soon recruits Run as manager and emcee of her touring live show, in which she chows down on rice, chicken wings and whatever else the locals see fit to serve her, to cheers and jeers from the crowd. As wonderfully played by Coulibaly, Gladys emerges as the film’s most poignant and memorable figure, a woman of no small physical and sensual appetites who gently introduces Run to carnal pleasures and treats him with unassuming, tough-but-tender kindness.
Although she touchingly acknowledges that eating is the only thing she knows how to do, that turns out to be not entirely true, as Gladys reveals a depth of loyalty and character at one key juncture that haunts the film long after she exits the frame. Real-world unrest returns to the fore in the third chapter, as Run falls in with a militia gang — clearly modeled on the Young Patriots faction of the 2002-07 rebellion — whose charismatic young leader, Admiral (Alexandre Desane), is determined to rid the Ivory Coast of French nationals and other foreigners. But Run, feeling emboldened, is not content to be one of Admiral’s lackeys, forcing a rivalry to develop that will have dire if not fatal consequences.
While the character’s long-term exposure to all manner of violence and trauma goes some way toward explaining why he ultimately decides to kill, the shift never really achieves dramatic or psychological coherence onscreen — a deficiency that can be attributed in part to the casting of Kounate (star of the Lacote-produced “Burn It Up Djassa”) and Bah, who are never especially convincing as older and younger versions of the same man. More problematic is a persistent lack of forward momentum and urgency resulting from the story’s disjointed flashback structure and inorganic sense of flow; we never feel caught up alongside Run as he darts from one adventure to the next, all dictated by a rigid yet sometimes whimsical narrative template.
To some degree that’s by design, as Run is meant to represent not just himself and other young men and women like him, but also the conflicted, corrupted soul of the Ivory Coast itself, a nation tipping over into madness — an idea made literal when Run must don the guise of a “madman” in order to pull off his plan undetected. Lacote, who earlier directed the 2008 TV documentary “Chronicles of War in the Ivory Coast,” has this time sought to channel the horrors of war into art rather than reportage. But while there is considerable artistry here — from the somber beauty of Miller’s imagery to the subtle intensity of Sebastian Escoffet’s score — it hasn’t been brought to bear in a way that proves consistently gripping in political or personal terms.