Year Released: 2017
Distributor: Strand Releasing
Origin: Senegal/France/Democratic Republic of Congo
Running Time: 124 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 15+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Second Coming, August the First, Where the Heart Is, Wilby Wonderful
-Actress Vero Tshanda Beya Mputu supposedly convinced the director to play the title character through four auditions.
-Felicite actually has a record of sorts. At the Africa Movie Academy Awards, this film won more awards than any other movie in the history of that event. It did a sweep of six awards for the following categories: Best Film, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Soundtrack, Best Editing, and even the Best Film in an African Language (context: a good chunk of the dialog is in Lingala) category.
-The soundtrack was handled by two notable Congolese groups. There are Kasai Allstars who play themselves and act as Felicite’s backing band. They are a collective based in the Kasai Province that can range from seven to twenty-five members all at once. The other is the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste. Interestingly enough, this is the same orchestra that was prominently featured in the documentary Kinshasa Symphony. There is the regular soundtrack and also a remixed version for the film.
-Felicite is directed by Senegalese-French director Alain Gomis. His other works consist of As a Man, Petite Lumiere, and Today.
It feels good to review some films again. Even though I had been on hiatus for months, I still watched some movies during that time while also taking notes. What made this review quite peculiar compared to other ones is that I actually bought and listened to the soundtrack without realizing said album was connected to a film. You see, I’ve been on a Congolese music kick and I discovered the Kasai Allstars band. I listened to their stuff, bought their albums when I had a bit of extra fun money, and really enjoyed the music. When I found out that the Felicite album was actually the soundtrack to a real film, I had no choice but to check it out.
Was the soundtrack the only good thing about this film? Let’s find out.
Felicite is about a single mother of the same name who makes a living being a singer at a local bar in Kinshasa, DRC. She’s self-reliant and doesn’t want anyone to help her out with her life or career. Things start out mundane with her fridge not working, so she calls a local repairman named Tabu who is willing to fix her appliances even though he has a crush on her. However, things take a turn for the worse when her teenage son Samo gets injured in a motorbike accident and is in severe condition. His operation costs a fortune which causes her to get money however she can in an honest way even if it forces her to beg or ask others to help her along.
This was a rough drama. There are certainly tragic elements, but they never become overbearing or far too morbid. The Felicite character goes through a lot of development that was actually believable as well as it was deconstructive. Most other directors would’ve instantly made her character into the stereotypical “strong Black woman who don’t need no help or no man” structure. While she does start off that way, she realizes how far it can really go as her self-reliance is a double edge sword. Sure, she can do a lot while being independent, but there’s an undercurrent of pride that breaks her as she’s forced to beg to make sure Samo gets the right treatment. Even Tabu despite him getting drunk at the bar, is willing to help her without being chauvinistic about it. Samo’s reaction to his own mom gets quite surprising as he’s dead silent for most of the time while awake and doesn’t eat the food. You do feel sorry for him as his condition gets worse and the hospital makes decisions that are very difficult only to save his life. Besides the characters, the cinematography is quite crisp most of the time with the camera work. It certainly doesn’t look low budget, so people need to stop crapping on African cinema. Going back to what I said earlier in the review, the music was such a treat. Kasai Allstars just kill it with their fusion of Congolese folk rhythms with modern instruments such as guitars, basses, and even giant electric likembes with amplified distortion for a guitar-like frequency. This is legit African music and people will be in a shocking awakening if they think music from the Congo let alone the entire continent sounds like the soundtracks to Black Panther or The Lion King. Seriously, shame on you if you think that way. Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanquiste adds another unique element as they show up in these scenes with their orchestral instruments while providing a classical and operatic edge. The scenes look out of context at first, but I thought they made perfect sense with the dynamic of chaos and order throughout Felicite’s life, so that was a nice touch.
Felicite does have some shortcomings. For starters, I thought the film was too long. They could’ve cut ten to twenty minutes and still have the same effect overall for the story. Samo didn’t feel like a character all the time, but sometimes more of a plot device. To be fair, he’s incapacitated at first, so I do understand, but he doesn’t have a revealed personality until Tabu tries to cheer him up late in the third act of the film when he finally talks. There’s also the poverty porn aspect which will turn off some viewers. While it’s not as bad as other movies regardless of which continent is in (this even includes movies I actually gave positive scores to), it is certainly noticeable since a bunch of slums is shown. No, a robot traffic light isn’t going to change that during one brief scene even if it was pretty cool (why don’t we have those in America?). There were also moments where some of the experimental imagery felt more like padding. The orchestra scenes were just fine, but the scenes where it’s dark in the forest didn’t add much besides the last visions. Expanding on that point, the lighting was poor during those scenes and I’ve seen better lighting and cinematography with basic cameras and even smartphones in those conditions.
This Senegalese/French/Congolese film did have some issues, but I still enjoyed Felicite. The drama felt quite real and I’m glad it didn’t lead to stereotypical things for the title character which I was concerned about. The music was certainly a high point. Seriously, Kasai Allstars and Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanquiste need to get more work in making music for movies in addition to their own recording or performance careers (can’t you tell that I strongly recommend the soundtrack?). I do wish the cinematography was more consistent in quality and some of the experimentation with the scenes didn’t need to happen. If you want a quality drama piece, then Felicite is certainly a good choice to make. Good job, Alain Gomis.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1 point if you like serious dramas.
Add 1 point if you like Congolese or at the very least authentic African music.
Subtract 1-2 points if you can’t stand poverty imagery or family-based dramas.
-Very good character development with Felicite and Tabu
-Great usage of vulnerability to counter stereotypical strong female misnomers
-The film could’ve been shorter
-Samo feels like a plot device at times
Final Score: 8/10 points
Content Warning: Felicite is something that would get either a hard PG-13 or a soft R if this got rated in America. Samo is quite bloody at the hospital, and his condition gets worse to the point where (spoiler slightly minimized) he has to get a limb amputated. There’s drinking going on since Felicite works at a bar, and some people get very drunk and some bar fights happen in the movie. The language gets strong even though it’s brief. There are some sex scenes that are mostly self-censoring except for one scene in the end where there is brief female nudity. Felicite also gets attacked in her attempts to ask for money for Samo’s operation which can be tough to watch.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Felicite is property of Strand Releasing. The movie poster is from Jour2Fete and is property of Alain Gomis and Jour2Fete.