Working-class hoofer Billy Elliot was living the high life compared to “Grigris,” the eponymous hero of Chadian writer-helmer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s typically studied fifth feature. The story of a disabled, dance-crazy young buck whose involvement in an illegal gasoline-trafficking ring eventually has him running scared, this elegant, geographically vivid pic is considerably leaner than its melodramatic premise might suggest, though wan characterization makes it less immediately engaging than Haroun’s last film, 2010’s Cannes jury prizewinner “A Screaming Man.” Distributors may well feel the same way, though fest programmers routinely starved for accessible African fare will keep the film’s dance card full.
With the film set in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, a large but still-disenfranchised city where radio carries a slow trickle of outside culture to the population, it’s perhaps appropriate that “Grigris” opens, quaintly, with an apparent reference to “Saturday Night Fever”: Dressed in a blindingly white dress shirt that mirrors the tiled dance floor, Souleymane (striking professional dancer Souleymane Deme, sharing a full name with his character) throws down some breathtaking moves at a local nightclub, delighting the regular crowd of admirers who have nicknamed him “Grigris.”
The name is perhaps derived from the term “gris-gris,” a talisman used in parts of West Africa as good luck charm. If so, it’s a cruel choice, given Souleymane’s consistent run of ill fortune — beginning with his paralyzed left leg, a disability that at least lends his dancing considerable distinction. By day, however, it makes the young man a social outcast, excluded from the city’s mostly menial job market and deemed unfit for purpose by its eligible women. Small wonder, then, that he finds love and a kindred spirit in another creature of the night, mixed-race prostitute Mimi (Anais Monory), whose light skin has further restricted her to the social margins.
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When Souleymane’s stepfather falls critically ill, running up a hospital bill of 700,000 francs, the desperate young man persuades local bigwig Moussa to employ him in his gas-smuggling racket — a widespread criminal activity in the region. Working as a delivery driver, Souleymane keeps the profits from one haul for himself, lying to his boss about a police intervention; it’s not long, however, before Moussa and his henchmen are on to him, threatening the dancer with swift execution if he doesn’t pay up.
It’s a simple moral setup in which no party is especially sympathetic: Souleymane may be the more vulnerable figure, but he’s so gormlessly impassive that we have only a semi-rooting interest in watching him escape Moussa’s clutches. Mimi, too, isn’t defined much beyond the social drawbacks of her skin and her profession. The film’s interest in their relationship seems primarily political rather than romantic: an illustration of how even the most disadvantaged societies create their own untouchables.
Unlike in “A Screaming Man,” sentimentality is strenuously sidestepped: Even Souleymane’s ailing stepfather is scarcely mentioned once the money for his care has been secured. As a result, the film is easier to admire than it is to invest in emotionally, though its pulse quickens with a dramatic, and boldly untelegraphed, feminist twist in the rural-set final reel, which is all the more surprising coming from a director whose previous films have been overwhelmingly male-dominated.
Cinematically, “Grigris” comes alive most electrically in Souleymane’s dance sequences, the camera lingering on the performer’s muscles as they knot and break with near-hypnotic suppleness. Cinematographer Antoine Heberle (best known for his work with Francois Ozon) treats Deme’s body as a landscape nearly as expansive as that of Chad itself. Outdoors, the sense of social desolation is captured in serene wide shots; as in so much African filmmaking, regional fabrics punctuate the parched, sandy earth with explosions of saturated color.
Renowned Senegalese musician Wasis Diop provides the film with a vibrant contemporary soundscape in its nightlife sequences, though by day, music is largely sacrificed for birdsong and organic urban chatter.