Lee Isaac Chung’s debut feature opens with the taut threat of violence as the titular teenage character (Rutagengwa) steals a machete from a street market. He ponders the weapon, imagining it covered with blood, then packs it away in his knapsack for an unstated purpose. Chekhov’s principle of drama is in full effect, but what’s remarkable about this film (much lauded on the festival circuit) is how it slowly steers its way from portent to poetry.
Munyurangabo’s quest is a simple one: He desires a grisly revenge against the soldier who murdered his father in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Yet the journey to this sanguine end is filled with numerous complicating factors, most resulting from his friendship with Sangwa (Ndorunkundiye), a young runaway who returns home to his parents (Nkurikiyinka and Narcicia Nyirabucyeye) after a three-year absence.
The longer retribution is delayed, the more red-eyed passions are muddied. Sangwa’s family drama provides humanizing insight into the Hutu caste for which Munyurangabo (a Tutsi) harbors so much enmity, while the fervent words of a poet (Edouard B. Uwayo) bring necessary context and clarity to the genocide’s lingering effects. A lyrical and ambiguous final image (which evokes the god Janus) drives the point home: Munyurangabo’s great horror—and great hope—is to go on living.