Review

Senegal's Oscar entry ‘Félicité’ is an intimate drama set in the music scene of war-scarred Congo

The opening sequence of “Félicité,” a moving and expansive fourth feature from the French Senegalese director Alain Gomis, is a gorgeous blur of chatter, movement and song. In a crowded bar in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, patrons drink and dance into the wee hours, their loud, bickering voices clashing with the music performed by the real-life local collective Kasai Allstars and a club singer named Félicité (Véro Tshanda Beya), whose somber gaze magnetizes the camera from the first frame.

Félicité leads a hard life and has seen her share of past pain, as has her country, ravaged by despotism, war and a colonial legacy that has left profound scars and inequities in its wake. These hardships silently mark the landscapes we see and the people we meet, even as the movie itself remains entirely in the present tense. There are dream sequences in a nighttime wood and other odd flights of lyrical abstraction, but flashbacks would have only diluted Gomis’ intended effect, which is to capture the tumultuous immediacy of everyday reality yet also infuse it with an exalted spiritual dimension.

If the movie’s form is a rich weave of grotty realism and soulful musical, the story itself is remarkably simple. Félicité, a single mother, learns that her 14-year-old son, Samo (Gaetan Claudia), has been seriously injured in a motorcycle accident and needs an operation to mend a broken leg. But she will have to pay for part of the treatment immediately, and after some early setbacks she goes out into the streets of Kinshasa to find the money, a journey that will send her to Samo’s unhelpful father, a boss who owes her back pay and a desperate thief who turns out to be in worse straits than she is.

At every step she is met with the contempt and hostility of those she asks for help, including her own family. The cinematographer Céline Bozon keeps Beya’s extraordinary visage mostly at the center of her tight, mobile images, but occasionally pulls back to take in the restless, teeming activity of Kinshasa, where charity and compassion are shown to be held hostage by misogyny, corruption and (sometimes rightful) mistrust of authority. Looming over it all is a thick layer of platitudinous piety in which an invocation of God’s name is seen as a reasonable substitute for an offer of help.

None of this social observation seems forced or sensationalized. The cruelty we observe is strikingly matter-of-fact — a rash of bloody street beatings is tossed in with little explanation — but so are the occasional reprieves, the moments of optimism and grace (one of which explains how our heroine got her name). And there is one bright spot in the form of Tabu (Papi Mpaki), a wild bar patron who takes a stab at repairing Félicité’s perpetually broken-down refrigerator (a running gag and perhaps a metaphor) and eventually finds a place in her home and heart.

Gomis, who wrote the script with Delphine Zingg and Olivier Loustau, has a flair for merging focused character study and vibrant, sweeping mise-en-scène. His previous film, “Today” (2012), was a surreal whirlwind of a movie starring the American rapper and slam poet Saul Williams as a Senegalese man experiencing the last day of his life. For “Félicité,” which will represent Senegal in the Oscar race for best foreign-language film, Gomis was fortunate in his choice of Beya, a Congolese performer who had never acted in a film before. She arrives fully formed here as a figure of enormous dignity and warmth, a pillar of resilience who is nonetheless all-too-humanly susceptible to exhaustion, grief and despair.

Félicité is also an artist, someone who skillfully and instinctively channels her feelings into song. And so it’s fitting that music should become the movie’s emotional filigree, ranging from the band’s jubilant jam sessions to the heart-stopping occasional interludes featuring the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra, performing their renditions of Arvo Pärt in an enormous warehouse space. The mix of improvisation and classicism goes beyond mere eclecticism. It reflects the movie’s own generous embrace of life in its endless capacity for joy, sorrow and awe.

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‘Félicité’

(In Lingala and French with English subtitles)

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles

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justin.chang@latimes.com

@JustinCChang

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