That Felicite is a scintillating, beautiful yet frustrating film somehow feels apt as a reflection of modern urban Africa.
Directed by Alain Gomis with a blend of documentary observation and heartfelt character empathy, it tells the story of a night club singer in Kinshasa, capital of Democratic Republic of Congo.
Played by the extraordinary Vero Tshanda Beya, she is defiant and magnificent in her silence yet also heartbreaking in her tenderness. Her journey through the layers of city life provides enough drama in a a world where every day, every breath, every note, feels like a battle to be won.
Felicite is a successful loner, singing for her livelihood and doing fine thanks. When her fridge breaks, she calls in the repair man and is wise to any swindles. She can look after herself, even when things get drunken in the bar.
However, when she (and we) find out her son has had a bike accident and is in the hospital, Felicite is swallowed up by the bureaucratic machine and economic monster, tossed around by the system and crushed by financial burden.
She becomes a ferocious mother creature, doing anything and everything to save her son, a situation which takes her into various situations around the city, in some cases demanding cash owed to her, in others, reduced to begging for money.
Director Gomis gets distracted by random acts in the city, such as a bloody brawl in the market place illustrating the dog-eat-dog, survivalist nature of life. Felicite does have an admirer in the fridge repair guy, Tabu, who’s also a customer in her bar, a fan of her singing but a notorious drunk and a womaniser. The two develop a tentative relationship and he offers strong help with her ailing son.
All through, Gomis focuses on Felicite’s face in haunting close up, a huge island of thoughtfulness and calm, inscrutable yet alive with possibilities and decisions. He follows her on nightly wanders in to the forest, inky black sequences which might be dreams, or feverish imaginings. An okapi appears and she caresses it.
The film mixes Felicite’s African grooves (she’s back by the Kasai All Stars) with more classical sounds, performed by the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra, who are pictured in rehearsals, as if commenting chorus-like on the action.
In its final 30 mins, the film takes on a more surreal and spiritual element, achieving a state of grace and serenity amid the toughness of existence. These might seem superfluous but they add layers of experience, deepening the roots and our attachment to this woman, as if the film maker simply couldn’t abandon his character and his milieu, couldn’t absent himself from Felicite. Even now, I think of her and I really hope she’s happy.
Felicite plays as part of the French Film Festival UK and the Film Africa festival. For details click here.