Directed by: Alain Gomis | 123 minutes | drama, music | Actors: Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu, Gaetan Claudia, Papi Mpaka, Nadine Ndebo, Elbas Manuana, Diplome Amekindra, Ferdinand Minga
In a sweltering bar in Kinshasa, visitors prepare for the performance of the Kasai Allstars. There is drinking, flirting and the atmosphere is full of energy and sound. In the midst of all that dynamism, we see her, Félicité (Vero Tshanda Beya Mputu). Sitting at a table, she serenely watches her surroundings. What’s on her mind? Her intense gaze hypnotizes the camera. Because although we also see the people around her, we always return to her. From the waitress who is brutally tapped on her butt and from the on the edge of an annoying drunken rioter, always back to her. Then she gets up; her moment is at hand. The moment when she can finally get rid of the anger, frustrations, insecurity and worries. She takes her place in front of the musicians of Kasai Allstars and starts singing. Her penetrating voice reflects her whole life, and that of many others in the chaos that is the Congolese capital.
‘Félicité’ (2017) is the fourth feature film by the French-Senegalese director Alain Gomis (known for, among others, ‘Aujourd’hui’ from 2012). This is a film that cannot be pigeonholed. We follow the single mother Félicité in her daily life, which is recorded in an almost documentary-like manner. Her teenage son Samo (Gaetan Claudia) recently had a terrible motorcycle accident. He is in hospital with serious injuries. If his leg is not operated on quickly, it will have to be amputated, and that is something Félicité wants to avoid at all costs. The operation costs about six hundred dollars, a godsend for a penniless single African woman. So she peddles all over Kinshasa and begs friends for donations. She doesn’t even shy away from asking a dangerous criminal for his favors. Although she takes blows, she eventually gets what she wants. However, it is not enough and Samo’s situation worsens. Félicité has meanwhile hooked up with Tabu (Papi Mpaka), an apparently friendly mechanic whose true nature is revealed when he has had one sip too many. Despite his flaws, the two feel strongly addressed to each other and Tabu therefore plays an important role in the period in which Félicité tries to regain control of her life.
The story of the film is not too detailed and straightforward and the storytelling style is at times just as restless as the streets of Kinshasa. The scenario loses out compared to the atmosphere and the music. Gomis alternates the bustling urban chaos of the streets of Kinshasa, where Félicité spends hours looking for money, with warm, dynamic and rousing scenes in nightclubs. When she sings, all the weight is lifted off Félicité’s shoulders; it’s her way of processing. Music is her comfort, her support. There are also dreamy, more spiritual scenes, in which Félicité wanders through the nighttime darkness of the jungle. It is impressive how the cast full of amateurs manages to portray their roles so intensely and convincingly, although the character they play will probably not be very far from reality. Gomis opts for a raw style, which fits seamlessly with the theme of living and surviving according to the harsh laws of the streets of Kinshasa. The scenes are on the long side, which will not make the film equally accessible to everyone. It is also confronting how hard and hopeless Félicité’s life is. Gomis keeps the balance thanks to the fantastic music scenes, the lively Congolese street scenes and the enthusiasm, commitment and passion of the cast.
‘Félicité’ was awarded the Silver Bear (the Grand Prize of the Jury) at the Berlin Film Festival. Chances are it was mostly Vero Tshanda Beya Mputu who captivated the judges with her amazing voice and penetrating charisma. This woman – let’s emphasize once again that she has no acting experience at all – is a natural talent who manages to captivate the viewer from the very first moment she is on the screen with her complexity, intensity and inscrutability. As Félicité she manages to navigate very strikingly between the raw hopelessness and harshness of her daily life and the energy and zest for life that the music brings to her. And watch those feet with the swinging soundtrack of Kasai Allstars keep still!