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Félicité: What is Your Part in the Orchestra?

Félicité (2017) is a dizzying and beautiful film by Senegalese director Alain Gomis. It is a slice of life in Kinshasa that concerns Félicité, a nightclub singer whose teenage son is in a motorbike accident. In the first half of the film,  she is frantically doing all she can to save her son, but soon the film slows down. It becomes a portrait that encompass isolation, grief, community, and the ambiguities of a practical and romantic companionship. 

Félicité official poster

Two sets of interludes break up the film’s main narrative: dreamscapes of a forest outside the city in an inky-purple hue;  and scenes of an orchestra and choir in a cold blue-green light. Each time the latter appeared, I turned the volume up a bit more on my sound system. The beauty of the music — structured sounds from calm-faced musicians and singers — was especially moving in a film full of chaotic domestic and street scenes. 

Perhaps I was especially primed to pay attention to these scenes. I had recently been thinking about orchestras as a metaphor for the moment we find ourselves in (a global pandemic, a heightened awareness of structural racism, an election year of dire importance). Each of us take up prominent roles when called for. Each of us supporting the whole effort in the background as it progresses: flute, violin, and drum, each essential in their way. 

And Félicité knows this. She is a musician herself, a singer in a raucous nightclub. But at one point she is so filled with grief over her situation and her son’s accident that she can not sing, even as her bandmates play and encourage her. The scene ends abruptly as she walks off stage and the band halts. Of course, her life goes on. None of us can ever truly walk off stage. In our ways, we have to keep singing, and keep sustaining those around us. 

Tabu, the repairman and nightclub drunk whose presence in Félicité’s life grows as the film progresses, also shows us that life pushes onward. He is repeatedly present and available to help (except when he drinks too much at the club). He might not know a lot about refrigerators, or how to carry a boy out of a hospital, or how to care for that traumatized boy, but he’s game. He steps in to take on the challenges in front of him, eventually succeeding at most in his slow, lumbering way. 

This may be the message of Gomis’ slice of life film. We are there for each other when we take on the challenges in front of us. We each have to play our parts as best we can to move forward. 

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