Félicité is a singer at a local bar in Kinshasa, the busy and vibrant capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The members of her band – all men – find her cold and distant. Her fourteen-year-old son Samo seems to have dropped out of school, doing who-knows-what with who-knows-who. Samo’s father has long been out of the picture, living on his own at a hole-in-the-wall apartment across town in quiet resentment. And the funny handyman who has come to fix Félicité’s perennially broken fridge, Tabu, can’t seem to leave her alone.
The strong-willed protagonist of Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis’s latest work lives an austere existence that is only checked by the frenetic carelessness of the men around her. The everyday routine of Félicité’s existence as a quiet but graceful village-dweller by day, and a throaty, unencumbered one-woman-musical-machine by night, is interrupted when her son gets into a motorcycle accident. Félicité runs to see Samo, her only child, at the local hospital, journeying past Kinshasa’s ashy mud-lined village roads, bustling fruit markets, and bustling city towers in the process. When she arrives, she sees Samo covered in blood; his left leg is broken and there is heavy bleeding. The operation will cost up to 700,000 Congolese francs.
Thus sets cash-strapped Félicité off on her mission to save her son. Cold hard cash, rather than the dubious choices of the men in her life, becomes the primary constraint to Félicité’s narrative. In the buzzing world of working class Kinshasa, cash flows quickly and dramatically. Félicité is swindled by a hospital guest who offers to buy her son’s medicine. She visits Samo’s father, extended family members, bar owners and Kinshasa locals in her debt in order to extract some cash. These encounters result in screaming matches, forced police intervention, and – in the case of the former – an ugly gloat that she, Félicité, someone who “wanted to be a strong woman with lessons to show the whole world”, is now reduced to begging. Hell hath no fury like a weak man given the chance to put a strong woman ‘back in her place’.
Interviewed about the contemporary landscape of Kinshasa, director Alain Gomis remarked on the DRC’s tumultuous political history, noting its history “from an insane colonisation to a dictatorship, from a dictatorship to war”. These lasting political fractures are visible in the social landscape of Félicité, where cash becomes a common source of social antagonism not out of pettiness or deliberate meanness, but rather out of bare scarcity; the result of centuries of Western colonisation and extraction. The wealthy few remain cloistered in mansions behind six-feet-tall steel gates staffed by maids and servants. Everyone else is left in the dog-eat-dog monetary world characteristic of a developing country undergoing ‘modernisation’. Félicité struggles to pay for her son’s medical expenses, all the while robots and city towers are built and paraded in the city centre to herald the advancement of ‘progress’.
Enter Tabu, Félicité’s persistent handyman. “You see that robot, Félicité? That robot was built in the Congo”, he says to her proudly as they pass a giant hulking robot awkwardly bustling about a busy intersection. Tabu is a frequent drunk at the bar where Félicité’s sings. He is also an unabashed womaniser, and bare-naked dreamer and optimist. “One day, you will be amazed to see me on the TV, literally standing on the moon! I am greater than all the stars. The stars are nothing to me!” he continues excitedly, while Félicité, charmed in spite of herself, subtly cracks a smile.
Even the measured woman that is Félicité thaws in the presence of this absurd man. There is something intoxicating about Tabu’s appetite for beautiful, glorious life set against the hardboiled world in which he lives. New Inquiry editor Ayesha Siddiqi spoke of Kanye West, self-proclaimed “greatest living rock star in the world”, as an exemplary model for “insisting on your own greatness in a society that insists on determining your value for you”. Tabu, likewise, when confronted by rich patrons at a bar for his drunken behaviour, boldly and brashly orders whiskey ‘on the house’ for everyone – a generous move which everybody present knows he cannot afford (and will likely not meet). For Félicité, criticised by all for being “too tough for her own good”, her burgeoning friendship with Tabu grants her access to vulnerabilities that she has long denied; her love for his unrelenting flights of fancy betrays the cold, hardened exterior to which the world seems determined to assign her.
Félicité is a love story, but not a conventional one. It is a story of various different forms of love: love of Kinshasa, love of community, and love of self. Gomis interjects quotidian scenes of Félicité and Tabu weaving in and out of Kinshasa’s busy streets to surrealist, otherworldly mise-en-scènes featuring Félicité cloaked in midnight-white gowns, playing with unicorn-zebra hybrids emerging in the quiet forests of the night; celebrated Kinshasan music group Kasai Allstars play Estonian composer Arvo Part’s triumphant Gregorian music in a chamber orchestra. The result is a musical and visual feast that is not world-denying, but rather world-affirming in its careful exposition of the quiet pleasures of day-to-day life, and the godly beauty to be found in the resolve of everyday people and relationships. “You are from people with dignity” Tabu reminds Félicité’s son, beaten and battered from his accident; “We are more beautiful than heroes. We are the truth.”
Rebecca Liu is a freelance writer living in London. She is an editor for Kings Review, and tweets at @becbecliuliu.