Surprising, unsentimental and vibrant, ‘Félicité’ is a film of two halves. The first is almost a race-against-time thriller. Singer and single mother Félicité (Véro Tshanda Beya), scratching out a hardscrabble life in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has to find 700,000 Congolese dollars to pay for her teenage son Samo’s (Gaetan Claudia) operation following a grievous motorbike accident. Doing a Marion Cotillard in ‘Two Days, One Night’, the proud Félicité traverses the poverty-stricken city begging for the cash, tapping up peers, exes, a parent and a mob boss. It’s a languid but compelling journey often played out on Beya’s amazing face: she conveys so much by doing so little.
The second, less engrossing half charts Félicité’s tentative relationship with good guy-bad drunk Tabu (a sweet, boisterous Papi Mpaka) but broadens out to include Samo’s rehabilitation, dream-like sequences in a forest and a documentary look at Kinshasa street life, making understated points about stunted economic and gender politics. It never really ties its disparate elements together but still showcases Franco-Senegalese director Alain Gomis’ fluid style, at once naturalistic but flecked with poetic notes, a terrific eclectic soundtrack (from Kasai Allstars’ infectious African pop to Estonian classical composer Arvo Pärt) and a stellar debut from Beya, nuanced, complex and steadfast. In a cinematic landscape dominated by superheroes, Félicité, just by keeping going in the face of overwhelming shit, is her own kind of wonder woman.