As explained in Alain Gomis‘ new film “Félicité,” the title roughly translates to “our joy”. It is also the name that was given to its protagonist after surviving a near-death experience as an infant. Decades later, that joy is hard to come by for Félicité however, especially after a personal tragedy strike in this poignant drama set in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The film introduces Félicité on a deceptively positive note. Exuberantly performing at the bar where she works, she is in her element. All eyes are on her, as her fans implore her to “sing mama, sing.” It’s not long after that, however, that she gets some tragic news. Her son has suffered a serious accident while driving his motorbike. When she rushes to the hospital, they inform her that he will require an expensive surgery. Determined to fight for her son’s life, she sets her off on a desperate search for help through the unforgiving streets of Kinshasha.

Indeed, Félicité faces several other misfortunes along the way as she races against the clock to pay for her son’s operation. And in the process, Gomis frames the narrative as an ethnography of sorts. As we follow Félicité from city to coast and urban clutter to gated luxury, the film feels like a walking tour of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The sights and sounds of the religion, fashion, music, art, and food are vividly conveyed, painting a vivid tapestry of the culture.

As our guide into this fascinating world, Véronique Beya Mputu is uniquely captivating as Félicité. On first glance, she isn’t the most expressive of actors in the traditional sense. But there’s more than meets the eye. Indeed, Mputu makes brilliant use of her body language, whether it’s to convey the vivacious thrill of performing or the stillness of despair. Furthermore, while she initially embodies the character’s reputation as a woman “too tough for own good,” her face gradually reveals the character’s vulnerabilities with a subtlety that seems to only register in close-up.

Thankfully, the film gives us ample tight shots through Céline Bozon’s intimate cinematography. There’s an immediacy to her handheld camera movements that immerses the audience. This is especially true of the bar scenes where the film comes alive with the help of the performances and the vibrant sound design.

Admittedly, the film struggles to sustain that energy through its more aimless final hour. Nevertheless, Gomis keeps us engaged with a gently romantic storyline and several artful flourishes. The former involves Gaetan Claudia as Samo, a kind man who is essentially the male version of the “hooker with a heart of gold.” Meanwhile, Gomis also treads lightly into the surreal territory through a few contemplative nighttime scenes in nature. Bathed in the faintly purple glow of moonlight, these scenes evoke an atmosphere of serenity that contrasts beautifully with the busy city life.

Gomis’ most ingenious touch, however, is his use of classical music. It gives the film an ethereal quality that brings it a transcendent conclusion. Like its titular protagonist, “Félicité” expresses the moods of life with a magnetic, potent grace.

“Félicité” is now playing in select theaters.

GRADE: (★★★)

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MOTION PICTURE | DIRECTOR |
LEAD ACTOR | LEAD ACTRESS | SUPPORTING ACTOR | SUPPORTING ACTRESS | 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY | ADAPTED SCREENPLAY | ANIMATED FEATURE |
PRODUCTION DESIGN | CINEMATOGRAPHY | COSTUME DESIGN | FILM EDITING | MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING | SOUND MIXING | SOUND EDITING | VISUAL EFFECTS |
ORIGINAL SCORE | ORIGINAL SONG |
FOREIGN LANGUAGE | DOCUMENTARY FEATURE |