Film Review: Félicité

Although overlong and sometimes wandering, this portrait of a single mom in dire straits nevertheless rewards with its deeply human approach.
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The noble, majestically beautiful face of Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu illumines Alain Gomis’ film, in which she plays the titular role. Félicité is a single African mother who sings for her living in a local Kinshasa club. Her life is shattered when her son gets into a motorcycle accident and desperately needs an operation to save his leg. The cost of such a procedure is sizeable, forcing Félicité to go around town begging, sometimes for money which is owed her anyway.

Gomis presents an unflinching view of hardscrabble lives led by Congolese people who are generous with many things—except money. Félicité’s quest is met with varying forms of indifference and sometimes outright violence, including from the estranged father of her son. Embittered by their past, he takes no responsibility for his son’s well-being and tells Félicité that this is the price she must pay for being a strong woman. And this, it would seem, is her basic problem, one no doubt shared by women since the human race began. Although at the end of her rope, Félicité nonetheless strides through her village with head erect, brooking no disrespect and chasing well-wishers with empty pockets away from her son’s bedside.

Besides her music—which Beya Mputu performs with irresistible verve, backed by the percolating fusion band The Kinshasa Allstars—the one questionable joy in Félicité’s life is provided by Tabu (Papi Mpaka), burly handyman by day and roaring, out-of-control drunkard by night. A faltering sensual bond develops between them, two staunchly independent hardheads, and Gomis’ often quite gloomy movie is periodically lifted by their growing rapport, although strife is ever-present between them. It culminates in an almost romantic detente that has a rueful authenticity and ends this tough film on a welcome grace note that feels like the perfect balm. Things may never get any easier for this couple, but their ability to share a warm moment or two is something, after all.

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