A wild and adventurous fourth feature from French-African director Alain Gomis, Félicité find ourselves in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the world’s most dangerous places and a hard place in the best of times to make a living. Gomis, alongside cinematographer Céline Bozon, photograph the city as a wild, confused metropolis, unspooling over new-money concrete blocks, dirt tracks and a make-shift hazardous slums. It’s where Félicité, played with style and jazz by Congolese theatre actor Vero Tshanda Beya, works hand-to-mouth as a singer in raucous night clubs. The opening scene shows Félicité in full voice in a dive bar, where men drunkenly brawl and wads of notes are sent her way in reckless abandon, shot with an explosive energy.
Félicité’s livelihood is stopped in its tracks when her 14-year-old son Samo (Gaetan Claudia) lands in hospital that leaves him in need of an urgent operation for fear of losing his leg. The police who brought him in say it was a motorcycle accident, but in the DRC’s fragile political environment, it could have been a run-in with guerrilla fighters that is an everyday risk.
Félicité goes cap-in-hand in trying to raise money for Samo’s operation (the cost is one million Congolese dollars — about $800), in a section that echoes the intense, personal drama of the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night. It’s a biting critique of a paid-for healthcare system, reducing a once independent-minded Félicité into someone dependent on the kindness of strangers whose circumstances are perhaps as downtrodden as her own. And even those from whom she’s owed money, like her slimy nightclub boss, are insulted by the request for money. Her boss fires her when she involves the police (themselves corrupt, too) to recover lost wages, and her ex-husband, the father of Samo, throws insults about her trying to be an independent woman when she comes reluctantly begging him for cash.
Most of the townsfolk, and indeed the regulars at the bar where she sings, don’t take kindly to her asking, but one does: a rather boisterous mechanic called Tabu (Papi Mpaki, a real-life Kinsasha garage owner cast from open casting call). While he does appear to care for Félicité and her son, it’s probably the result of a romantic crush, and there’s a compelling power dynamic in how Gomis and co-writers Delphine Zingg and Olivier Loustau deal with the balance of their ensuing relationship. Who is taking advantage of whom?
That plot synopsis doesn’t quite do justice to the adventurous structure of the film, which is interspersed with night-time dreams, non-linear music scenes scenes, and even extended orchestral sequences by the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra. But most notable are the variety of musical numbers performed by Beya and the ebullient Kasai Allstars music collective, scenes which serve to contrast the liberation music can bring Félicité even in her depressing situation. This is a formally complex work, too long perhaps and occasionally opaque in its meaning, but a daring ride to those wanting to glimpse the best of African cinema.
Félicité premiered at Berlin Film Festival and opens on October 27.