Alexander Abela’s impressive followup to his luminous black-and-white Madagascar-style “Macbeth” (“Makibefo”) is a shimmering, full-palette Madagascar-set update of “Othello.” Transposed to a primitive, isolated fishing village, the Shakespearean tragedy regains its profound sense of loss, of human greatness diverted and deformed by envy and greed. Stunning imagery, sweeping primal emotions, handsomely gifted thesps and a clever recasting of the Bard in post-colonial idiom should wow arthouse auds.
Abela condenses the action into five figures locked in a complex choreography of movements and exchanged glances, the realm of language embodied in the titular figure of the famed Senegalese poet Souli (Makena Diop). Warrior of the pen and not of the sword, Souli still writes but only for himself, toiling as a simple fisherman and silently awaiting the disciple to whom he can transmit the sacred oral tales of which he is sole custodian.
Nobody else speaks much in the movie: The characters are all conceived as advanced practitioners of loaded but largely non-verbal communication.
Souli lives with a lovely younger French woman, Mona (Jeanne Antebi), who works with the women of the village to sell their crafts. Tired of the continued exploitation of the fishermen (including Souli) by a brutish French trader named Yann (Aurelien Recoing), Mona has just perfected a method of making ice which she donates to the village cooperative, thus threatening to end Yann’s lucrative monopoly.
Yann, a conflicted throwback to colonialism, is the Iago of the piece, scheming to stop Mona and discredit and destroy Souli. Yann’s shapely young village mistress Abi (Fatou N’Diaye), who dreams of going to Paris with Yann, embodies a more compromised and complicitous Emilia. Jealous of Mona and of her easy acceptance in both worlds, Abi allows herself to be manipulated and brutalized to create a chain of disharmony and discord.
Into this volatile mix wanders Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), a reimagined Cassio made to order for Yann’s nefarious ends. Though he seems more sinned against than sinning, handsome young Carlos, a graduate student writing his thesis on the stories over which Souli stands guardian, ultimately reveals himself willing to sacrifice honor and integrity for a shot at academic fame.
In Abela’s version of the classic, only the totally innocent die; Mona is suffocated via the traditional pillow, while Carlos and Yann flee, leaving a mortally wounded Souli wordlessly communing with his chastened countrywoman Abi.
Under Abela’s direction, beauty — the beauty of the countryside, of the sea and of the people — becomes a palpable force inseparable from the madness that Yann complains the country has created in him. The simplicity and rightness of the organic, self-contained hamlet of Aboula (an actual village in a remote section of Madagascar where the entire film was shot) drives the European mad, spurring him to blow up his pettiness into murderous proportions. There is more than a touch of Rimbaud’s self-prophesized descent into imperialist decay and corruption in this transplanted Gallic Iago.
Joseph Areddy’s glorious lensing does full justice to the subtle colors of the island, where bands of sea and sky assume the textured wash of a Mark Rothko painting. Never picture-postcard pretty, pic highlights the shapes and materials of the village, with its light-filled see-through bamboo ateliers and passageways formed by fences of fantastically twisted ocean-bleached dead trees.
The camera moves with little or no transition between inside and outside as porches, windows and doors are always open to the elements.