Poetic humor, tragedy in 'Waiting for Happiness'

Times Staff Writer

A cinematic poem full of wondrous images, the 2002 Mauritanian film "Waiting for Happiness" focuses on modern life in a small coastal village and all its apparent incongruities. Our entry into this world is through a young man who returns to visit his mother before going abroad. He has forgotten the native Hassanya language, wears western clothes and his foreignness isolates him. He observes the activities through a small window, immobilized between two cultures.

The film, which screened Thursday at the L.A. Film Festival, has many characters and little drama but Moscow-trained director Abderrahmane Sissako creates transfixing micro-narratives that lull the audience into the village's comforting rhythm. The elliptical structure is challenging but ultimately rewards in a penetrating way. It's a film in which an elderly man's quest to screw in a lightbulb carries epic weight and a child's toy provides the kaleidoscopic visual metaphor for the stories. Sissako imbues his work with warmth and humor, and there's a tragicomic arc to the fates of his characters, especially that of a boy whose presence is the soul of the movie.

The film screened at UCLA's James Bridges Theater as part of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.'s series "Unshown Cinema: Inside the World of the Films That Got Away." "Waiting for Happiness," "Los Muertos" and "All Tomorrow's Parties" (screening tonight at 7) are recent international films deprived of distribution. The association wants to shine light on overlooked gems and bring attention to the fact that many outstanding films never make it to local art house venues. "Los Muertos" and "All Tomorrow's Parties" are L.A. premieres; "Waiting for Happiness" screened locally at the 2003 Palm Springs and Pan African Film Festivals.

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