NYFF 2017 Review: Félicité (Alain Gomis)

Alain Gomis’ Félicité premiered at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival, winning the Silver Lion award and receiving many favorable reviews. After these victories, the selection committee of the Lincoln Center chose the film for the main lineup at the New York Film Festival. As a relatively new filmmaker, Gomis’ selection honors and also boosts his festival cred, establishing him as a director on the rise. With his film Félicité, Gomis successfully demonstrates the inner challenges of Senegalese society while telling a Dardenne-esque story of helplessness and societal grit.

The film begins in a nightclub in Senegal where performer Félicité, played magnificently by the luminous Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu, sings and dances to traditional African music. The camera drifts and zooms throughout the club, from Félicité to patrons, creating a dreamy, lyrical world of joy and sound. In the following daytime scenes, Gomis details the life of Félicité and how she responds to her son’s injury on a motorbike. Unable to afford the necessary operation, she attempts to collect the money by begging and praying. Gomis builds tension by creating a sense of urgency and helplessness which permeates the film’s first half, much like the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night.

Thematically, Gomis envisions an Africa which struggles to adapt to Western influences. The night scenes at the club portray a culture which is filled with sadness and joy, one in which African-based music and rhythm dominate. The daytime scenes, conversely, are based in extreme realism, in which Western culture has taken root but has not successfully adapted to the Senegalese and greater African society. As Félicité begs for money, Gomis shows an Africa in which an evil form of capitalism thrives, in which she cannot get money for a basic surgery for her child, and in which mothers will willingly sell their children in order to pay off debts. Other stylistic and plot devices show Western culture’s impact on Africa, such as the use of poorly shot African TV soaps that reveal the negative and culturally impotent influence of European originated programs.

Importantly, the West does thrive in Gomis’ Africa. Félicité is a strong woman who will do whatever she can for her son. As compared to many more traditional cultures, Félicité triumphs because of the West’s positive and empowering impact on women. While Western cultures may be still struggling with women’s rights, the fervor of Félicité is one that can be afforded because of Western influence in Senegal. Mputu’s brutal and outstanding performance delivers deep empathy and radiates melody and strength that further elevate Gomis’ themes of the West’s impact.

The story arc of collecting money for the son’s procedure finishes halfway through the film. Without the urgency of the first half, the story begins to waver and some less significant plot lines, such as trying to fix a refrigerator, take hold and never lead to a satisfying finish. Regardless of this later section of the film, Gomis has successfully portrayed a realistic yet beautiful Senegalese society, in which the urgency of dance and life are intertwined.