Félicité was one of the most talked about and highly rated films at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival. It has already won numerous awards on the festival circuit and is the first Senegalese film to have been submitted for Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards.
If you’re not a fan of foreign language films, then maybe Félicité isn’t for you, but honestly, the story is so compelling, the acting so immersive, and the cinematography so gorgeous: simply put, it’s exceptional.
Set in the rough, and often violent city of Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo, it would have been easy for Franco-Senegalese director, Alain Gomis to produce a film imbibed with gritty realism, something that would shock and sadden audiences as we watch the eponymous lead character as she struggles to save her headstrong teenage son after he’s in a dangerous accident.
Thankfully, Gomis instead focuses on the beauty within Kinshasa, and within Félicité herself: she’s a singer in a downtown city bar, barely managing to make ends meet and is fiercely independent and resourceful, funny and forceful.
The Congolese singer-turned-actress Véro Tshanda Beya who plays her, is utterly captivating in the role. Her talents are perhaps best displayed in the opening scene of the film as she weaves magic with her voice, commanding the attention of both the cinema audience and the rowdy crowd she sings to in the film with perfect skill and grace.
The effect is heady and hypnotic, and sets the rest of the film up brilliantly. Because that is what Gomis relies on with this film; the plot, after all, is barely there, but the film is steeped in emotion, and in something more abstract — it’s almost as if, through Félicité, Gomis is trying capture the pure essence of Kinshasa.
Where the visuals sometimes let Gomis down in this endeavour, the soundtrack does not. The music in the film fills for dialogue for much of the film. The soundtrack is pure Kinshasa with music ranging from Kinshasa based 25-piece musical collective Kasai Allstars, who create indigenous music with modern influences to the Kinshasa Symphonic Orchestra’s rendition of Avro Pärt.
Indeed, as much as the film focuses on Félicité, Gomis never lets the audience forget that the city is vital, so much so that Kinshasa almost becomes a character in its own right. The head of cinematography, Céline Bozon allows the camera to slip past the main characters at times and instead focuses on random and inconsequential moments that are never mentioned or analysed. It is in these moments — the brutal beating of a petty thief is a notable one — that the films says the most about the hardships that the Democratic Republic of Congo still faces.
At two and a half hours, Félicité could do with some tightening up as it does drag in some places. On the whole, however, it is a beautifully crafted film, highlighting the magnetic vibrancy of Kinshasa through our Delphian protagonist as she attempts to save her son and herself.