Being a musician in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is not so different than in any other country, especially the lack of health insurance. This is even riskier in the rough-and-tumble DRC, which is not very democratic and nor much of a republic. A hit-and-run accident leaves a club singer’s son in desperate need of surgery, but she will have to rely on her wits and the mercy of others to raise the considerable hospital fees in Alain Gomis’s Félicité, Senegal’s first official foreign language Oscar submission, which opens today in New York.
You can hear a lot of life in Félicité’s voice when she sings in neighborhood clubs. It would be an exaggeration to say she has fans, but there are regulars like Tabu, who often come out to hear her—at least before he hooks up with an available woman who will go for his lines. Unfortunately, her world implodes when her son Samo is driven off the road. He requires surgery to keep his leg, but the $600 bill must be prepaid. Of course, that is a discouragingly sum for any workaday working class Kinshasan. For a musician, it is prohibitively onerous.
To make matters worse, Félicité even falls prey to a petty scam artist targeting distraught parents such as herself. Nevertheless, desperate times demand desperate measures, so Félicité borrows and begs from some of her worst enemies, including her ex-husband. She will ask from everyone in her social circle, but only Tabu the player seriously steps up. As Félicité agonizingly scrapes together the needed funds, an unlikely romance haltingly blossoms between them, even though she is fully aware Tabu has decidedly not changed his ways.
Félicité is a defiantly messy, undisciplined movie that could easily be trimmed by at least twenty minutes, but it packs a powerful punch. Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu is simply a revelation as Félicité. She is an intense presence during the straight dramatic scenes, but when she sings, all bets are off. In fact, the film’s most striking aspect is the way her vocal performances reflect her character’s state of mind. Her story is always right there in her song.
She also develops some appealingly ambiguous chemistry with Papi Mpaka’s Tabu. Despite their myriad flaws and mistakes, their budding relationship gives us all hope. Of course, the Kasai Allstars sound terrific essentially playing themselves. They have a really funky groove that sounds influenced by soul, R&B, and Highlife music. They never get to leave the bandstand, but the film wouldn’t work without them (according to the French-Senegalese Gomis, they were the reason he made the film in Kinshasa). Yet, Félicité also has distinctive counterpoint sounds provided by the impressively scrappy Symphonic Orchestra of Kinshasa, who perform Arvo Pärt’s Fratres with her classical chorale ensemble.