Starring Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu. In Lingala and French, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
Franco-Senegalese director Alain Gomis begins Félicité by throwing you right into the chaotic heart of nighttime Kinshasa. Revellers are guzzling beer and listening to music, many seated on the plastic patio chairs of a rundown street bar. His freewheeling camera jumps between conversation snippets, the bottle a band member is using to keep the beat, a drunken brawl, wide shots of Congotronics masters Kasai Allstars, and long close-ups of the fascinating face at the centre of it all: that of dusky-voiced singer Félicité (the real Congolese songstress and actor Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu).
Later in the movie, someone compares her mug to an armoured car—and yes, she looks tough, but that’s only half the story. She’s a single mother eking out a living, and her stoic gaze falls somewhere between rage and resignation—the opposite of her name, which translates as “Joy”.
When her son gets mangled in a motorcycle accident, the woman who’s insisted on going it alone is forced to beg for help to buy his surgery. And with striking style, Gomis paints a compelling portrait not only of her struggle, but also of those of an entire city. The guy knows Africa, and he exposes its beauty, grit, and pain with the unsentimental humanity and knowing eye of one of its own.
Gomis fills the movie with wide shots of Kinshasa’s anarchic dirt streets, with their tarp-covered markets, burning garbage piles, and women swathed in colourful batik dresses. When Félicité sets out desperately on these roads, striding through the dirt in her sandals, you can sense through the mayhem the countless other trials that drown her own battle out.
Gomis alternates this stark realism with dreamlike touches, starting with scenes of the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra playing the otherworldly strains of Arvo Pärt. To escape her harsh urban reality, Félicité’s mind jumps to mysterious scenes of her in a lush forest, awash in the blue light of night.
What Félicité can’t see is that everything she needs might be right in front of her, in the unassuming form of her refrigerator repairman and drunken bar patron Tabu (Papi Mpaka).
The film defies western structural conventions; it wanders and it’s prone to long, hypnotic Congotronic interludes at the bar. But it introduces you to people who are enigmatic yet real, and to a country that’s ferocious, alive, and resilient enough to survive the worst—like the film’s frowning heroine.