I got everything I wanted from the 55th New York Film Festival on the night I watched Félicité by Alain Gomis, a writer-director who knows how to make a movie percolate.
First he gets a simmer going in his title character (Véro Tshanda Beya) as she sits, lost in thought, in a bar one night in Kinshasa. Her face in close-up is as silent and magnificent as the sculpted head of a god, but not nearly so impassive. Every time Gomis cuts back to her from the bursts of gossip, boasting, and argument that flicker around the room, you see sparks in her eyes—from sorrow, maybe, or anger. Then the bar’s owner turns up the heat, demanding to know why there’s no music. Félicité stays put, but a half-dozen men seated around her respond to the complaint by grumbling their way into the cul-de-sac that serves as a bandstand, where they wake up their instruments and start fomenting a groove. Patrons nod and shimmy in their chairs; the temperature rises. Then Félicité promenades to the microphone, throws back that monumental head, and sings. Sweating and shouting break out; people are on their feet. One of them struts forward to plaster banknotes on Félicité’s forehead.
At that, she finally smiles. The movie’s popping at full boil, and you’re caffeinated, ready for whatever may come.
Like a good many of the selections in each year’s NYFF, Félicité tells the story of a working person struggling against adversity and injustice in a locale far from the polite bustle of the festival’s Lincoln Center home. In this case, you’re projected into the jammed and ramshackle streets where Félicité—a single woman, no longer in her first youth—must chase after cash for surgery for her injured son. (The health-care system in the Democratic Republic of the Congo apparently practices the same pay-as-you-go method to which many Republicans want the United States to revert: Until Félicité comes up with the money, her son can just lie in the hospital, bleeding from a compound fracture.) But unlike the average social-problem picture, Félicité isn’t about exemplary figures making their way through representative incidents. It’s about an irreducible individual—two of them, actually: the stubborn, often standoffish Félicité and Tabu (Papi Mpaka), the large, hard-drinking, but thoroughly kind rogue who loves her.
That makes Félicité one of the experiences I craved most from this edition of the NYFF: something like a Dardenne brothers movie, but with a driving beat, a goofy love story, and the interpolation of some mysterious, blue-tinted images of orchestral performances and forest settings to remind me that Félicité’s mental world isn’t all slums and soggy francs.