The category is films about perilous journeys; the subset, dramas about the hopes and terrors of economic emigration. For many audiences, Gregory Nava’s 1983 El Norte established the itinerary for these social-realist road movies, sending its Guatemalan peasants to the United States on a path that has been followed many times since—by characters who within the past decade have included the Colombians in Joshua Marston’s Maria Full of Grace and the Hondurans in Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre.
Whatever the merits of these films, it was good last year to see the young writer-director Antonio Méndez Esparza break the pattern in Aquí y allá, which dispensed with the journey and instead showed the protagonist living his life in Mexico between two risky ventures into the north. But it’s also good to see films that preserve the trip while translating it out of pure social realism: into the terrors of the Afghans trying to reach Britain in Michael Winterbottom’s quasi-documentary In This World, the near-allegorical madness of the Albanians (and Italians) trying to reach Italy in Gianni Amelio’s Lamerica, or the sweetness and wonder (and pain and fear) of the African boy hiding out en route to London in Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre.
In Moussa Touré’s La Pirogue, which had its premiere in a sidebar to the 2012 Cannes festival and is now opening theatrically at Film Forum in New York City, thirty-one of Africa’s futureless poor cast off from Senegal for Spain in an open fishing boat, with consequences so straightforward and predictable that it’s fair to say the film conforms to type. Put it this way: when one of the travelers fusses over the pet hen he’s brought aboard, you take one look at that bird and know she’s a goner. I give away nothing you couldn’t guess for yourself when I say there are prayers and songs during the voyage, arguments and rivalries, a foreshadowing, a storm and more deaths than that of the hen.
But La Pirogue is much better than this itemization might suggest. Like many other films that have come from Francophone Africa, it likes to color outside the narrative lines—which doesn’t obscure the clarity of the argument, but does liven up the proceedings.
The figures you see in the immensely winning opening scene might be the futureless poor of Africa, but they’re gathered under the sun in considerable numbers to dance, drum, laugh, shout, place bets, size one another up and generally shake the screen into an irresistible hubbub of montage. A whole seaside town has turned out for a wrestling match, where the contestants work themselves up—and work the crowd—with ritualized dousings, clouds of smoke, chants and prayers from their seconds, and many brandishings of limbs, rattles, beads and shells. Touré and his screenwriters, Éric Névé and David Bouchet, have chosen to introduce their central character, a fishing-boat captain, as a grave bettor at this scene, immediately identifying Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye) with themes of physical struggle, victory and defeat, affluence and hardship, tradition and modernity. (The ceremonial libations are poured from plastic soda-pop bottles.) This is far more meaning than would need to be loaded onto him all at once if the goal were simply to get the plot going. For the actual purpose, though, it’s just the right amount, and it’s borne by the tall, slim Baye Laye with tense dignity but no strain. Even though he is being pressed reluctantly into the people-smuggling trade, for clearly stated social-realist reasons, he is living in a movie where light touches of myth, folklore and auto-ethnography suggest hidden depths in the conventional drama.
Touré has mostly worked as a documentarian, and it shows throughout much of the first part of the film, where he’s interested in the surroundings as much as the exposition. He gazes raptly at the seaside shacks, dusty streets and yellow-walled compounds—so raptly that you forget that these are staples of African cinema and see them anew. He also looks lovingly, and protractedly, at faces, as do Baye Laye and his wife, Kiné (Diodio Ndiaye), when they caress each other in an almost wordless farewell, as if trying to memorize one another’s bodies. There is always time in La Pirogue to register tactile sensation, or to evoke the splash and splatter of the animistic charms that Baye Laye throws down when he leaves his home behind.
Another case of coloristic superabundance: Baye Laye’s fishing boat, which proves to be a character (the title character at that) as much as a setting. As long, narrow and gently curved as a banana leaf, slapping through the waves with its bow lifted up, Baye Laye’s boat is decorated with a maze of bright, multicolored patterns and the letters of its name, Goor Fitt (Courage and Strength), and has a tall rudder post at which the helmsman stands, adding a dashing vertical element to Touré’s compositions. It’s a good thing that the pirogue is entertaining in itself, because the challenge for Touré as a director, and you as a viewer, is to remain confined in it for most of the movie. Thirty-one characters and a hen take their places against the sloping sides, under the wooden thwarts, and there they remain amid the good, the bad and the utterly rotten until almost the end.
They reveal themselves as types, you’d say, more than as individuals, except that their indelible faces and utterly confident performances make them register as singular. Among the souls in Baye Laye’s worried care are his second-in-command and ingenuous young friend Kaba (Babacar Oualy), a scarified aspiring soccer player; Lansana (Laïty Fall), a laughing, self-styled tough guy with a Sean Combs face, who has organized this people-smuggling operation and is ready at all times to clash with the captain; Baye Laye’s mushroom-haired younger brother Abou (Malamine Dramé), a seeming iPhone-besotted layabout who proves to be industrious as both a musician and a fisherman; and Samba (Balla Diarra), the red-capped, potato-nosed spiritual leader of half a village’s worth of Muslim tribesmen, who provides much of the moral ballast for the journey.
If there are occasional lapses in the storytelling—notably a sequence where Touré loses faith in his images and resorts to having these characters speak their deepest thoughts in voiceover—there are many more surprises: a funny ruse with a roll of breath mints, a foggy dream of trees on the African plain, a boisterous parody of political oratory (including Nicolas Sarkozy’s). As for the biggest nonsurprise, the storm, it’s as impressive and terrifying as a natural disaster can be without its creators having recourse to the computer-generated imagery from Life of Pi.
A pirogue, as I’ve learned through a little research, is a canoe-like boat built for shallow coastal waters. It is not suited for a week-long voyage on the open sea; but over and over again, people actually crowd into these boats and dare to set off for Europe. As the vessel, so the movie. La Pirogue is small compared with most Euro-American productions (although the producers did find the money for a helicopter shot) and has its vulnerabilities—but its makers trusted it to do the big job of carrying the story of African emigration, and it has come through beautifully.
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By coincidence, this year’s Oscar nominations were announced just as James Holmes was facing arraignment for last summer’s Dark Knight Rises massacre. Meanwhile, adding to a confluence of events that were perhaps not entirely unrelated, gun dealers were reportedly having trouble meeting the demand for the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, the weapon of choice for elementary school murders in Connecticut. It was time, I thought, to watch Gangster Squad.
Why Gangster Squad in particular? Because Hollywood’s peak season of self-congratulation for its art always makes me want to reacquaint myself with pure Hollywood product, and because a postponement of Gangster Squad had been one of the slighter consequences of the Aurora, Colorado, killings. As the trades reported, Warner Bros. had been ready to release the movie in early September 2012. After the killings, though, the studio chose to revise the virtually completed film, and scrap the existing trailers for it, in order to remake a sequence that began with criminals blasting into the auditorium of Grauman’s Chinese Theater from behind the screen, their machine guns blazing at the audience. That the decision to alter this scene was commercially wise in no way diminishes its tact and good taste. But there’s only so much tact that a studio can afford to exercise when it has invested a reported $60 million in a movie that needs to be brought to market. After the December killings in Newtown, Connecticut, Gangster Squad remained on the January release schedule. Audiences would just have to judge for themselves how much good taste director Ruben Fleischer had finally exhibited.
On opening day I bought a ticket, found a seat without trouble among my fellow paying judges and settled in for twenty minutes of trailers—that is, the film-industry context for Gangster Squad. What did I see?
Bodies being pierced, stabbed, shredded, beheaded and splattered like gore-filled water balloons in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.
Multiple deaths from gunshot wounds, while a mud-daubed Johnny Depp talks to a horse, in The Lone Ranger.
Tom Cruise zooming around at the controls of a white metal sphere, zapping unidentified enemies (presumably extraterrestrial) into the title condition in Oblivion (because “there is no other way”).
Young women being abducted and sliced to pieces, again and again, until Halle Berry decides to fight back (there being no other way) in The Call.
Bruce Willis putting in his normal day at the office—setting off fiery explosions, smashing through windows and enjoying the heft of a reliable assault weapon—in A Good Day to Die Hard.
And assorted (if unimaginative) mayhem with shotguns, axes and Sylvester Stallone’s line delivery in Bullet to the Head.
By this point, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the reminder to turn off my cellphone had shown a disobedient caller having his hand and ear lopped off. I wouldn’t say I’d been inured to violent death; that would presumably take longer than twenty minutes. But I’d certainly lost count of the corpses well before Gangster Squad began, and so was not as impressed as I might have been when Fleischer tried to grab my attention at the outset by showing a man being ripped apart in a tug of war between two 1949 sedans.
Bear in mind that even as a post–Labor Day release, Gangster Squad would not have been anyone’s idea of Oscar bait. It does have some trappings of prestige, though, including a gleamingly stylish re-creation of post–World War II Los Angeles, a young director rumored to be ready for a breakthrough, and a more than respectable cast featuring Sean Penn (as a substantially fictionalized version of the high-living, publicity-loving crime boss Mickey Cohen), Josh Brolin (as the stone-faced police sergeant chosen to lead a covert operation against Cohen), Ryan Gosling (as the dandified, womanizing cop who grows a conscience and joins Brolin’s squad) and Emma Stone (as the live-in lover who recklessly betrays Penn with Gosling—maybe because she couldn’t get enough of him in Crazy, Stupid, Love). For fans of film history, even the Warner Bros. logo is an attraction, bringing to mind the gangster era of Cagney and Bogart.
Maybe the worst thing about Gangster Squad is that it does try to call up this history. With a hint of pride in its modern superiority, it imagines what the old-fashioned mob pictures might have delivered by way of full-bodied violence and sleaze had they been freed from the strictures of the Production Code. A nod toward nostalgia, a grandiose display of the arrogance of the present: this seems to be the whole program of Gangster Squad.
I have always accepted depictions of violence as integral to the movies. I have never accepted the notion that purveyors of violent images should be restricted for the sake of public safety—not when we’ve done so little to restrain the trade in deadly weapons. All the same, I find it hard to defend Gangster Squad as exemplary high-end product. Django Unchained may arouse all sorts of objections, but as a work of commercial art, it at least pretends that its bloodshed has a purpose beyond looking cool. By contrast, Gangster Squad and those movies in the trailers pretend to be nothing but non-Oscar business as usual—a large part of which, apparently, is meant to gratify a public appetite that I hope the producers have overestimated.
I would like to see a little more tact, and some effective gun control legislation.
In his last review, ”Waltz Unchained,” Stuart Klawans took on Quentin Tarantino’s latest.