Félicité marks a return to screens for Senegalese director Alain Gomis. A graceful and deeply sympathetic piece of work about a Congolese bar singer and her attempts to raise enough money for an operation for her teenage son, Félicité is an emotionally effective heart-tugger, thanks largely to Véro Tshanda Beya’s dignified lead performance.
When Félicité’s (Beya) teenage son Samo (Gaetan Claudia) is injured in a motorcycle accident, his mother is forced to clear out her savings and call in old debts to pay for his operation. These scenes, in which Félicité traverses the impoverished backstreets and wealthier suburbs of Kinshasa – sometimes accompanied by a police officer for support, at others armed only with a powerful sense of purpose and a refusal to quit – are utterly heartbreaking. Each encounter strips away another layer of the carefully constructed facade of strength and independence she wears each night as she takes to the stage. Loosely scripted but brimming with formal invention, Gomis shows the emotional toll of living in a society when healthcare is viewed as a privilege instead of a right. This is social-realism veiled as tragedy, where music is as much of a character as any of the secondary players.
The film’s score, a rich combination of Congolese folk, opera and classical music, uproots this freewheeling character study from its realist principles and transforms it into a tragedy of near-operatic pitch. In fact, it would be fair to say the film’s energetic soundtrack tells its own story, charting the fluctuating emotions of Félicité as she navigates the bureaucracy of the municipal hospital system and the ignominy of asking for charity. The film also derives considerable colour and texture from Céline Bozon’s perfectly judged camerawork which illuminates Félicité’s strong features, while Gomis shows great sympathy towards his leading lady, never forcing Félicité into a corner or a situation where she has to go against her morals. Her salvation arrives not from some form of compromise but through hard work and the compassion of her friends and family.
There’s no knight in shining armour to save Félicite. Instead she’s lumbered with Tabu (Papi Mpaka), a well-meaning drunk whose infatuation with Félicité sees him go from fixing her fridge to coaxing Samo out of his trauma-induced silence. It’s at this point, once Samo has left the hospital and the on-off relationship between Félicité and Tabu blossoms, that the film switches gears, feeling drawn-out and lethargic compared to the exuberance of the preceding race against time. Although the film’s evocative score amplifies the inner-turmoil rumbling inside Félicité, it’s the moments when she sings where things really come alive.
Played by newcomer Beya with an anger that belies her fragile core, the songs Félicité sings come from a place of real pain and suffering. A single mother raising a teenage son, she’s evidently had more than enough of both in her life. Yet each night as she approaches the microphone the crowd enter a fervent, almost trance-like state as she opens her mouth and sings her own song – a defiant number about the strength of community and the unexpected rewards of human compassion.