Thursday, March 29, 2007

La Vie est belle

1987, Zaïre/France/Belgium, directed by Benoît Lamy and Mweze Ngangura

A major hit in many African countries when it was released - it is one of the few African films to be widely distributed on the continent - La Vie est belle is in many ways an old-fashioned rags-to-riches story with resonances that go far beyond its country and continent of origin, telling the tale of an aspiring musician (Papa Wemba, already a huge music star in Zaïre, and with a growing international reputation) who sets out from his home in the provinces for the bright lights of Kinshasa. The film's main concern isn't with plot (even Shakespeare might have balked at all the coincidences, not to mention the deus ex machina resolution), but rather with creating an authentic impression of Kinshasa life (though circumstances force the filmmakers to be oblique in their criticisms, given that Mobutu's state was among the financial sponsors).

The film's gentle comic style - not to mention the unsurprisingly fine soundtrack - masks what is ultimately a very pointed commentary on the almost complete lack of state assistance, which compels the entire population into an attitude of trying to get by, using and abusing connections in the manner demonstrated by those at the highest levels. In some ways, the force of this commentary is all the greater for its expression in such seemingly benign terms, a force that emerges after the fact, once the glow of the finale has faded.

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