Alain Gomis' character study of a struggling single mother in Kinshasa evolves into something far more sensually complex than it initially seems.
Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, goes the old saying — though for the variously stymied characters of “Félicité,” life hits them when they have no plan at all. A loose, vibrant fourth feature film from Franco-Senegalese director Alain Gomis, “Félicité” likewise builds to a fever of energy and activity while never sketching out more than the bones of a narrative: It’s a film in which a hard-earned smile, the contact between one person’s skin and another’s, or a serene strain of music amid the everyday noise can qualify as a dramatic event. Following a proudly independent club singer through the ragged streets of Kinshasa as she seeks a way to save her hospitalized son, Gomis’ latest is far from the miserablist issue drama that synopsis portends, instead weaving a sensual, sometimes hopeful, sometimes disturbing urban tapestry with threads of image, sound, poetry, and song.
Gomis’s last film, “Today” — which, like “Félicité,” unspooled in competition at Berlin — was a similarly refined, freewheeling work that proved to be more of a festival favorite than a distributor’s darling. His latest might wind up in the same corner, particularly given a two-hour-plus running time that could use a trim, and no remotely recognizable onscreen talent to court a niche following. (“Today” at least boasted cult U.S. rapper and slam poet Saul Williams in the lead role.) Adventurous viewers who do take a chance on “Félicité,” however, shouldn’t find it at all lacking in star quality: In the title role, Congolese singer-turned-actress Véro Tshanda Beya proves entirely mesmerizing from the moment the camera alights on her strong-featured, deep-gazing face, sometimes shading entire histories of dismissal, disappointment, and ongoing resistance into a single expression.
Beya’s husky, double-espresso singing voice makes an equally striking initial impact, meanwhile, in the film’s remarkable, unhurried opening scene, which introduces Félicité singing for her supper in a rough-and-ready Kinshasa bar. As she throws herself into the music, grooving infectiously with dynamic real-life collective the Kasai Allstars, Céline Bozon’s itchy-footed camera wanders from the stage, taking in the bar’s smaller sights and sounds, as patients chatter, drunkenly pick fights and scatter banknotes over our performing heroine. It’s a languid opening gambit that nonetheless economically defines the everyday conditions and conflicts of the world Félicité lives in: Gomis, himself a stranger to the bustling Congolese capital, shoots it with an unjaded outsider’s eye for life at the edges.
In this film, of course, even the protagonist’s life counts among those. Félicité may be a star at the bar’s modestly raised stage, but in all other respects, day-to-day living is a struggle for the single mother, who must contend with indifference from the system, harassment from men, rank cruelty from loved ones (“How did you end up this ugly?” her mother asks coolly) and, in a doleful running gag, a fridge that’s permanently on the blink. She weathers it alone as best she can, but when her 14-year-old son Samo (Gaetan Claudia) has a grievous accident that lands him in the hospital, she’s forced to admit she needs help. Offered none by the boy’s father (“You wanted to be a strong woman,” he sneers), she begs the charity of her city — yet only the unprepossessing Tabu (Papi Mpaki), one of the bar’s most raucous regulars, lends a hand. A hesitant, push-pull romance develops, and with it the semblance of a new family.
Yet there are no sentimental solutions in “Félicité,” nor any compassion without compromise. Without a word of rhetoric — indeed, the film just about dispenses with words altogether for extended stretches — Gomis gives audiences a burning sense of the economical and administrative blight still holding this part of Africa down, as well as the regressive gender politics that make it a challenge for women like Félicité simply to be. Occasionally the camera darts into our heroine’s peripheral vision to note incidental tragedies that strike no observers as remarkable: the savage beating of petty thieves in a crowded street market, for example, is glimpsed without comment from character or filmmaker. Recurring, near-dreamlike nighttime sequences, shot by Bozon in barely discernible layers of velvety black, find Félicité wandering away from the city and into the less corrupted wilderness: At one point, Gomis reworks German poet Novalis’ “Hymn to the Night” in voiceover as a kind of paean to the peace of darkness.
Finally, the film’s jangling, diverse musical soundtrack practically functions as a screenplay in itself, charting Félicité’s shifting states of mind as it leaps from the Kasai Allstars’ breathless modern fusion of indigenous and international rock to the sober grace of the Kinshasa Symphonic Orchestra’s spin on Arvo Pärt. “Around Félicité,” a virtual and traveling multimedia exhibition detailing the film’s patchwork of artistic and musical influences, provides further evidence of Gomis’s multi-disciplinary approach to storytelling — just in case this unruly, occasionally rapturous film weren’t quite enough.