Félicité is a proud woman, a single mother who depends on no-one, driven by her desire to raise her child without a man. At night she sings in a nearby bar, bringing the locals out of their seats as the strains of her layered voice meshes with the Congotronic house band. Life in Kinshasa is raw and chaotic and her nightly escape into music provides solace from the daily slog it demands. Félicité’s facial expressions remain guarded and refuse to reveal a weakness that others can exploit, but there is little she hasn’t already seen and never once does she shy away from the challenges thrown at her.
Director Alain Gomis’ fourth film shows us the world exclusively through debutante Véro Tshanda Beya's eyes, evolving through its two hour run time from personal tragedy into an ethereal dream world that inspires a romantic relationship. The director is confident enough to move beyond standard form, some of which he isn’t able to successfully stitch together into a coherent narrative whole, making Félicité very much a film of two halves. The music we hear is as bold a character as the people themselves, when either sung by Félicité, led by the Kasai Allstars, or underscored by the tender strings of the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste of Arvo.
When she hears her son Samo (Gaetan Claudia) has been hospitalised following a motorcycle accident, Félicité desperately tries to find the one million Congolese Franc’s needed to pay for her son's treatment. She collects old debts impassively while others become upset at her demands for payment and donations are offered, even though she is too proud to ask others for help. Gomi’s camera remains rigidly fixed on Beya’s face throughout, her blank expression fighting back the grim nature of the situation. All around her we see the impoverished state of Congolese life set in contrast against the affluent areas where the divide in living standards is horribly apparent.
The film feels at its most vibrant during the nightclub scenes listening to Félicité command the hearts and ears of the regulars. This is where we first meet the womanising Tabu (Papi Mpaka) who spends almost every evening drowned in liquor chatting up women and winding up men with his belligerent behaviour. Tabu is keen to help Félicité and her son and gradually becomes a permanent fixture in their life, despite a reluctance to change his ways. Their relationship slowly develops in the second half of the film, where cutaways increasingly change the film's texture, often leading into the unexplained, imaginary dream world that Félicité slowly wanders through, the editing abruptly dropping us in and out of its trance.
Where the first hour is more engaged with character, the second half feels much longer than 60 minutes mostly due to Gomis’ decision to expand on the dreamy interludes. There are long periods where nothing is said at all, scenes that add little to neither narrative nor character. Because Samo refuses to eat and speak (which is never explained) and Félicité rarely opens up, momentum is quickly lost the longer it continues, and rather than establishing a stronger connection with their lives, we become strangers removed from understanding them. Perhaps a more concise approach would have stopped the film aimlessly drifting away from a strong opening full of promise that it is unable to sustain for two hours.
Félicité is released by MUBI on November 10th.