Power dynamics wrapped in religious intolerance drives a wedge between two brothers in Mamadou Dia’s engrossing feature debut, “Nafi’s Father.” While presenting two competing visions of Islam, the film plainly shows fundamentalism as an aberrant strain foreign to Senegal, wielded as a means of control rather than a genuine belief system; even though the Islamist topic is hardly under the radar of late, Dia grants his characters warmth and humor in their struggles and makes the story feel fresh without compromising on drama. Not enough sub-Saharan films make it to festivals let alone art-house cinemas, but the strength of “Nafi’s Father,” plus two Locarno wins, including the Golden Leopard in the Cinema of the Present section, should boost its chances considerably.
In a small town in the northeast of Senegal, the local Tierno (Alassane Sy, “Mediterranea”), a religious leader qualified to be an Imam, practices a centuries-old homegrown version of Islam that adheres to Koranic scripture but also incorporates certain traditional animist practices. His older brother, Ousmane (Saïkou Lo, “The Pirogue”), on the other hand, has fallen in with a fundamentalist sheikh from outside the region and is throwing money around to draw more people into his circle. When he announces one day that his son, Tokara (Alassane Ndoye), will marry the Tierno’s daughter, Nafi (Aïcha Talla), the religious leader is taken aback, arguing that his daughter is too young; the real reason of course is he doesn’t want Nafi to fall into his brother’s orbit.
Were he to listen to Nafi herself, he’d discover that she actually wants to marry her cousin, a gentle young man with a passion for dancing. Nafi, an only child, is a strong-willed teen — no younger than her mother, Rakia (Penda Sy), when she married — who dreams of going to college in Dakar. A union with Tokara would enable them both to go to the city and lead less constrained lives than what they have at home, though that’s hardly how Ousmane sees it. The root of the brothers’ tension has nothing to do with their kids, but rather with sibling rivalry and lingering bitterness over issues of parental favoritism when they were children; the difference is that the Tierno has a kind though rigid nature, whereas Ousmane is greedy for power and uses religion to punish and control. Their battle of wills, involving the whole town but specifically impacting their children, will have tragic implications.
There’s an unexpected strain of melancholy that suffuses “Nafi’s Father,” notwithstanding frequent grace notes of humor. The Tierno is conceived as a figure of Shakespearean proportions, wielding authority with a gentle hand yet caught in a rigidity that makes him blind to what’s happening in his own home. Though representing an ages-old form of Islam that, for example, makes the hijab optional, he remains a traditionalist, which is why Nafi tells only her mother about her university application. The Tierno’s Koranic knowledge doesn’t include a course in psychology or self-analysis, and his battle of wills with Ousmane for the soul of the town (much like a Western) is genuine in its concern for the happiness of his flock but also blind to the deep personal roots of the conflict.
The script could use some tightening, and even more noticeable is the need for greater flow in line delivery, which tends to allow for too much empty space between conversational dialogue. Dia and producer Maba Ba met while attending NYU’s Tisch School, and they’ve put together a crew consisting of fellow alumni Sheldon Chau as DP and Alan Wu as editor. Visually, the film is marked by handsome compositions and a sensitivity to color and shadow, always connected to furthering a sense of location and character rather than as an exoticized locale designed for Westerners.