In a ghoulish age when many Americans are resorting to online crowdfunding to finance potentially lifesaving health care, the simple, sorrowful fable spun by “The Gravedigger’s Wife” may not feel as distant to Western viewers as it looks. Charting the increasingly desperate efforts of a poverty-stricken Djibouti family to fund an urgent kidney operation that is cruelly beyond their means, this plaintively moving debut feature from Finnish-Somali writer-director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed identifies a universal strain of social injustice, but presents it with enough grainy cultural specificity to stand out from other, soapier dramas on the subject.
Though “The Gravedigger’s Wife” is effectively a European production, co-financed by Finland, France and Germany, it feels authentically embedded in the everyday fabric of life on the impoverished outskirts of Djibouti, its perspective free from exoticization or condescension. Neighboring Somalia, where Ahmed was born and raised, has entered it as its international Oscar submission, a further boost to the profile of a film already warmly received on this year’s festival circuit, beginning with a Cannes Critics’ Week premiere. Though the film’s modest scale and unassuming tone may work against its distribution prospects, it marks Ahmed — whose well-traveled short-film work includes a collaboration with “Compartment No. 6” director Juho Kuosmanen — as an assured, audience-minded storyteller to watch.
If anything, the storytelling in his freshman effort is polished to a fault: The film’s peril-infused second half works toward a climax of neatly schematic, O. Henry-style irony that feels less persuasive than the organic, vignette-based observation of what has gone before. Early, loosely sequenced scenes of domestic routine and workplace chatter convey the balance of undemanding contentment and creeping stress in the life of Guled (Omar Abdi), a stoic, resilient gravedigger whose life revolves around the care of his wife, Nasra (Somali-Canadian model Yasmin Warsame, in her acting debut), and son, Mahad (Khadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim).
Together, Guled and Nasra want for little, and there’s a warm, charged intimacy to the scenes that capture them alone, whether sensually bathing, idly chatting or dressing to go out. Abdi and Warsame project the comfortable, coordinated body language of a longtime couple weary of seduction, content with just being. Lately, however, his meager income has been swallowed entirely by antibiotics for Nasra’s chronic renal abscess, which has left her frail and bedridden. Worse still, the meds haven’t prevented the need for a $5,000 operation that they can’t remotely afford. As door after door is shut in their faces and even young Mahad resorts to washing cars in the street for cash, Guled must take a last resort that involves facing his abandoned rural past and challenging local village politics.
The cruelty of Guled’s livelihood depending on the deaths of others is repeatedly underlined, sometimes with an edge of morbid humor — as when a group of diggers quite literally chase an ambulance to the hospital entrance, tools in hand, hoping to claim dibs on any bodies within. “The Gravedigger’s Wife” is tacitly damning of the systemic failures that necessitate such opportunism, a carrion economy that proves unsustainable when Guled requires the medical establishment to protect some lives more than others. Gradually, however, Ahmed’s script sheds this subtly satirical streak in favor of a sentimentally cosmic view of life and death in balance — complete with heavily pointed cross-cutting — that’s less witty and more overtly heart-tugging.
If the writing here takes an emphatic turn, the elegant restraint of the performances and filmmaking keep it in check. Shooting in parched browns and turmeric yellows occasionally disrupted by hopeful, springy flashes of green, cinematographer Arttu Peltomaa playfully contrasts sparse landscapes with urban clutter. Sometimes characters are cast alone and adrift in the frame; elsewhere, they are pushed together in tight, tactile close-ups. It’s an alternating visual design that suits this film’s sympathy for the individual feeling abandoned in a society that nonetheless runs on human dependency. Still, the system is a ladder, not a chain. Hovering in the dry air is the question of who, at the end of it all, digs the gravediggers’ graves.