Economic Struggles and Family Trauma
Alain Gomis’ “Félicité” opens in a small Congolese bar as the talkative, inebriated patrons wait for the evening’s performance. Bits of conversation are heard in and out of the soundtrack and close-ups of patrons briefly dominate the frame. A loud drunk makes his presence known as the Kasai Allstars perform a lively song that scores the evening’s events. In this scene, Gomis never highlights a central figure or even indicates a particular narrative. He simply provides the mood hoping that the audience to follow the tenor of the environment.
The film routinely takes the form of a street level documentary, a concert film, and a near-silent character study. The movie has multiple interludes that are digressive but feel integral to the director’s vision.
The film’s title character, Felicite (Vero Tshanda Beya) is a single mother and a club singer living in Kinshasa who lives her life independently. However, when her 14-year-old son lands in the hospital after a nasty motorcycle accident, she embarks on a quest to gather the money necessary for an operation to save his leg. Gomis follows her as she rushes around the entire city collecting old debts and begging for money to help her son.
Félicité’s strength comes from her refusal to collapse under the weight of her circumstance. It’s clear that Félicité isn’t one to ask or even beg for anything, let alone money from her cash-strapped peers and family members, but the position has caused pride to be a luxury. She refuses to turn away from insults or when she stands up to a local mob boss who refuses her request for a handout. She channels the unique power in simply refusing to yield to the world’s harsh burdens.
Félicité, who works as a nightclub singer, is at first heartbroken to learn that her son, Samo (Gaetan Claudia), has been severely injured in a motorcycle accident. When she finds him bloodied in a hospital bed, she then becomes a victim of the corrupt health care system, which insists that she produce the money in advance for an operation to save Samo’s leg. In her plight to secure the funds, she’s both browbeaten and actually beaten at a potential donor’s house that she practically breaks into.
After learning that Samo’s leg had to be amputated, Félicité collapses. The film’s second half alternates between elongated periods of silence and boisterous moments involving Tabu (Papi Mpaka), a handyman who slowly evolves into Félicité’s lover and a father figure to Samo, We see the possibility of a hopeful conclusion but the film feels incomplete because several of the themes just end with no closure.
Felicite is a rough and tough survivor who has spent many a night singing in a bar trying to lift the spirits of the patrons. She and they yearn to have the music ease their pain. Then she must deal with her own crisis an sees how few of the people that she raises spirits for are ready to help her save her son’s leg. As her son’s condition worsens and she runs out of time to raise the money. She gets some support from Tabu who even declares his love for her.
During the course of the film, several musical excursions are taken to show how music can serve “as an energizer, a soulful elixir, a soothing balm, and a momentary pick-me-up.”