Félicité ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.


This is the first film I've seen by Alain Gomis, whose last film Aujourd'hui (2012) was in competition at the Berlinale, just like this one. However Felicity won the Grand Jury Prize Silver Bear (essentially 2nd place), garnering it and Gomis a bit more international attention than his previous two features have managed thus far. I sincerely hope that Felicity proves to be a breakthrough, although let's face facts -- African cinema has a tough row to hoe in the West, even among art film aficionados. There is too often the misconception that in African films, psychological drama always takes a backseat to didacticism and the exposure of dire living conditions. Despite the poetry of Soulemane Cissé or the sly humor of Abderrahmane Sissako, some viewers still respond as if the purpose of an entire continent's cinematic output were the inculcation of white guilt, or producing a set of dreary images to accompany the staging of an appeal.

Granted, sometimes the stereotype gets reinforced by the handful of African films that make it into Western festivals and cinemas, creating a kind of feedback loop. There are bad movies made everywhere. But this is precisely why Felicity deserves to be seen. The story of a resourceful, independent woman living in Kinshasa, DRC, Felicity does not spare its viewers the ugliness of poverty, corruption, or patriarchal aggression. But neither does Gomis depict those systems of oppression as immutable faîts accompli. This is a complex work of portraiture, tinged with both strength and deep despair.

Felicity (Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu) is a singer and band leader in a popular night club. She is also a single mother, having left the boy's father several years ago due to mistreatment. Although her ability to conduct business and maintain a household outside the strictures of patriarchy is seen as somewhat unusual, Felicity is a respected member of her community. What's more, her relationship with her son Samo (Gaetan Claudia) is healthy and positive, despite his being at the surly, awkward age of 13 or 14.


Felicity asks Samo to run an errand, and he hops a ride on a friend's motocycle. They have a horrible accident, and Samo's leg is shattered in several places and is bleeding out. It is at this point that Felicity kicks into high gear, as a kind of Dardennes-like "action" movie, quite unexpectedly given the relaxed tone of the prologue. The crooked Congolese hospital system will not even give Samo the most basic care until Felicity can pay the doctors' fees upfront, in full and in cash.

Thus begins the mother's mad scramble to cobble her life savings together, and then to approach everyone she has ever known, and a few individuals she does not know, scrounging for funds in a race against Samo's sepsis. Every scene is tinged with Felicity's full awareness that while she negotiates, haggles, and begs, her son is lying in a filthy bed in absolute agony. And, in articulating this crisis as one of Felicity traversing villages and neighborhoods with a relentless filmic rhythm, Gomis delivers nearly a full hour of high-wire cinema.

Once her quest comes up short, and Samo's leg is amputated, Felicity settles into another, very different rhythm -- that of depression. There is Samo, of course, who for awhile does not even want to try to walk on his crutches, lying on the couch, baleful and silent. But more palpably, the once-proud Felicity is virtually shattered, having failed not only to protect her son but to thrive as a strong woman. She begins to feel as though she shouldn't have left Samo's father, and that her feminism was somehow misplaced.

Gomis is clear that Felicity's crisis of confidence is the direct result of profound sadness, and that she is wrong to blame herself for being thwarted by a corrupt system. But depression seldom responds to factual evidence. What it does sometimes respond to is care, and that comes in the form of Tabu (Papi Mpaka), a local handyman and drunk who has harbored a crush on Felicity for quite some time. In her time of trouble, he steps up, not only to (rather ineptly) fix her refrigerator, but to act as a father figure to Samo and to remind Felicity of her worth.

What is impressive about this coupling, and the conclusion that Gomis makes of it, is that it in no way represents a recouping of Felicity's situation for patriarchal values. Tabu is a bit of a fuck-up, and he is upfront about that. But this means that he can give his love and affection to Felicity freely, without in any way trying to control or dominate her. It is taken as a given that, even at her lowest, she is brains and the strength between them. It's her independence that has always attracted him.

So in a way, by letting Tabu care for her and Samo, Felicity gets time to feel, to be weak, and to come back around to solid footing again. Because she knows she doesn't have to take Tabu's needs seriously -- that he's not someone else for her to care for -- Felicity gets to find her independent self again, not out of necessity but out of desire.