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.