Véro Tshanda Beya, the Congolese singer turned actress making her screen debut in Alain Gomis' tough-minded life-in-Kinshasa character study Félicité, can pierce your heart with her croon, rouse your soul with her shout, move you with her mien of cussed indomitability, cut you with her look of wary, weary appraisal. As Félicité, this powerhouse presence at first gets to dazzle us, singing with storied local trance-boogie “Congotronic” combo The Kasai Allstars. But the show is in a dive without a stage, and the fact that the bills that a bewitched customer rubs on Felicite’s head as a sort of tip say “500” on them speaks more to the troubled Congolese economy than to our heroine making a serious payday.
Soon, we see her at the apartment this single mom shares with her teen son Samo (Gaetan Claudia), bickering with handyman Tabu (Papi Mpaka) about how many hundreds of thousands of local francs it will cost to fix her refrigerator’s fan. Not long after, Samo gets hurt in a motorbike accident, and Félicité must raise the money to save his life.
Much of the first half of the film finds this resolute woman shoving her way into places she’s not wanted, often to ask for money. Samo’s father browbeats her as if he’s some Greek chorus whose job is to make the themes explicit: “The strong woman,” he sneers, “look at you now!” Another loved one says he’d donate to a funeral but not to surgery for a kid who’s not likely to recover.
The scenes that follow will have anyone who suffers from any vestige of social anxiety fighting not to cover their eyes: Desperate, Félicité barges into the gated homes of Kinshasa’s wealthy citizens, asking for money while the help gets charged with dragging her away. One of these scenes turns disturbingly violent, and as the film presses on, over two often despairing hours, even Félicité’s occasional musical performances stop offering relief. That voice of hers, a honeyed rasp, eventually seems, for a sequence, to lose its power.
But the film — a little too long, a little too relentless, a little too blunt — is about a woman with little power still finding ways to exert her will upon the world. No matter how bad things get for her, Félicité’s face is that of someone who will not back down, even if she must turn to thievery.
Gomis' handheld cameras work to keep up with the actors, who seem to move with rare freedom, but he also stages some exquisite and complex flourishes: a scene of Félicité fading in and out of the moment as she’s surrounded with friends and family offering their condolences, and the many passages where she wanders alone through some woods at night, her world a haze of inky blue. Félicité also sings in a choir that is rehearsing soothing, solemn, spectral Arvo Part pieces, the kind that sound like what God would hear when listening for the ocean in a seashell. These moody interludes suggest that Félicité has methods for finding peace even as her life has gone to chaos, and the best news I can give you is that she eventually finds someone else to share them.