Cannes 2024 review: The Story of Souleymane (Boris Lojkine)

“Lojkine creates an unexpected and powerful climax, in which going off track and being honest could very well be simultaneously saving and dooming.”

Souleymane is a food delivery worker among those who frantically race on their bikes through the streets of Paris (as in any other major city) to get the customers their orders as fast as required. As is the case in real life for the vast majority of them, Souleymane is an undocumented young man who made his way to Europe through illegal paths plagued with danger and violence. To reach Italy from Guinea, the hero of The Story of Souleymane, as well as the non-professional actor who plays him, Abou Sangare, went through all the ordeals recently depicted in Io capitano. Boris Lojkine’s film is, in some fashion, a continuation of the one made by Matteo Garrone: once on European soil, what happens to the immigrants? Do things get any easier for them?

In a way, the answer is yes – they do not risk their lives as much as before, even if The Story of Souleymane tells the tale of a serious accident, with a head-on collision between Souleymane on his bike and an SUV. But on the other hand, until they are granted asylum (if they indeed benefit from such a positive outcome – and that is a big ‘if’, as we will see), every aspect and every minute of their lives is still dreadfully problematic and tiring. In the first half of his film, Lojkine exposes, one after the other and with a great attention to detail, the struggles that Souleymane has to deal with at work and at the emergency shelter (only interrupted by a few – too few – displays of camaraderie between work mates, and of kindness from customers). Each day starts with his cell phone alarm ringing as early as needed to be sure to secure a bed for the following night, and ends with the last late-night bus from downtown (where the restaurants and customers are) to the shelter (pushed back far into the suburbs) not waiting a single minute after its scheduled departure time. Souleymane’s days are a race against time, in a city that more or less functions as an open-air prison for him and his fellow immigrants.

Since they do not see it, Lojkine does not show us the glamourous Paris we know from movies and TV shows, or the bright and shiny Paris promised for the upcoming Olympics. We see a place of work (and certainly no play) which is harsh and cold and as unforgiving as jail, with a strict timetable, the asphalt and buildings representing the floor and walls of this prison. And, just as behind true prison bars, there are established racketeering systems to extort newcomers. Souleymane’s account on the delivery app is a rental, provided to him by a loan shark (a scam known by everyone, including the cops to whom he brings food on a stakeout). Similarly, the story he plans to use for the asylum application is an off-the-shelf tale about political repression, sold shamelessly to him and many others by a man insensitive to the fact that it will undermine their chances rather than increase them.

The second act of the plot, quite clearly there to turn a medium-length film into a feature-length one, puts Souleymane’s frail survival scheme on the brink of collapse, on the eve of his convocation for the asylum interview. It is more conventional but still effective, in the way of works like Two Days, One Night by the Dardennes or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days by Cristian Mungiu. The lengthy final scene that follows, covering the interview itself in real time, is much more convincing. Using the vulnerability of his hero and the ambivalence of the asylum office agent facing him (she is cold and yet humane in her questioning of him), Lojkine creates an unexpected and powerful climax, in which going off track and being honest could very well be simultaneously saving and dooming.

(c) Image copyright: Unité