Reviews: "Bamako" and "Angel-A"

Robert Avila May 29, 2007

Justice in the court and courtyard with “Bamako”

In “Bamako,” the 2006 film from African director Abderrahmane Sissako (recently screened to much fanfare at the San Francisco International Film Festival), the policies pursued in the so-called developing world by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — in fact, the whole system of neo-liberalism flying under the flag of the Washington Consensus — go up on trial in a modest sun-drenched African courtyard in a poor neighborhood of Mali’s capital. The trial brings together real professionals and activists as well as regular citizens to argue (in rousing, eloquent fashion) a case of immediate real-world concern: namely, whether the regime of “aid” and “development” that over the decades has saddled countries in Africa and the world over with crippling national debts and reduced social services is, as the plaintiffs argue, an imperial and criminal system of exploitation that continues the legacy of colonialism in new guise.

At the same time, life continues to go on all around this makeshift outdoor-indoor courtroom, in particular the routine of a club singer named Melé (the astonishing Aissa Maiga) and her unemployed husband Chaka (Tiécoura Traoré), who stays at home with their infant daughter and doggedly tries to learn French (in what seems doubtful hope of gaining work as a security guard, as we learn in one of the film’s priceless bits of desultory dialogue). Trial and daily life thus serve as backdrop to one another, in a subtle but powerful interplay of comment and contradiction that meshes distinct social classes as readily as it does cinematic genres.

This blending of court and courtyard is a masterful stroke by writer-director Sissako, and goes to the heart of the logic of “Bamako,” the latest from the esteemed creator of “Waiting For Happiness,” “Life on Earth,” and “October.” For in the film’s supple overlaying of documentary realism and dramatic fiction comes the illuminating cinematic juxtaposition of center and periphery, elite discourse and social reality, hallowed halls and the hovels of the unemployed, mouthpieces of power and sidewalk hucksters. In so far as the film successfully harnesses cinema to the most pressing subjects of the day — and its gently unfolding storyline, sly self-referential humor, harrowing testimonials, graceful pace, and beautiful images and sounds all brilliantly feed its transformation of the abstract into the vital — “Bamako” is a film of rare political and dramatic force, which substitutes for the deadening rhetoric of globalization (and the pernicious evolutionary ideology behind its concept of “development”) a profoundly potent economy of human faces and stories.

Earthbound: Luc Besson’s “Angel-A”

[ editor’s note: This review appeared originally in indieWIRE on May 24, 2007. The film opens in the San Francisco Bay Area this Friday.]

In a comeback that I’ve been anticipating only slightly more than the reemergence of JNCO jeans or polio, Luc Besson now returns to American theaters after a nearly decade-long absence. The occasion is the release of “Angel-A,” a Paris-set variation on “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which replaces Clarence (dowdy old character actor Henry Travers) with an improbably gorgeous girl who — this being a Luc Besson movie — can kick ass with impunity.

Andre (played by popular comic actor Jamel Debbouze, most familiar to Americans from “Amelie”) is a globetrotting hustler who’s found himself at loose ends. A life of borrowing and welshing is closing in on him; he’s penniless, and the underworld types he’s indebted to are now preparing, in unison, to test out the “blood from a stone” adage on him. Melodramatically despairing, he prepares to fling himself into the Seine, only to spy a statuesque fellow jumper, Angela (Rie Rasmussen, quite memorable as The Legs from Brian De Palma’s “Femme Fatale”), just ahead of him in line.

Forgetting his plans momentarily, Andre winds up dragging her out of the drink, and right off she proves herself no wilting distressed damsel — in fact, she’s in-control enough to take good care of herself and her rescuer, straightaway starting his life on extreme makeover, settling his accounts and bolstering his self-esteem in the way that being seen with a perfect female specimen tends to do. All told, it’s a variation on that unusually popular contemporary fable in which a febrile, helpless failure finds his salvation through the love of a good woman — who in this case happens to be sent from Above (life experience suggests these fix-up-job relationships aren’t the ideal formula for Happily Ever After, but then actual human emotions don’t have much relationship to this film). Despite the nod to Capra, “Angel-A” never explores the depths of abjection that justified his sophisticated sentimentality: when Andre is getting ready to jump, there’s never any sense that he’s at risk of something worse than a pratfall, and the dangers he’s escaping from are simplistic comic-book thugs — one only needs to turn the page to make them disappear.

The film’s unsuppressed eccentricity does allow for a few nips of pleasure through the lopsided pairing of Rasmussen and Debbouze — in heels, she’s at least a head taller than him – which inherently achieves the fairy tale whimsy strained for elsewhere. But by any measure, it’s a wreck of a movie. Spending most of its runtime on the razor’s edge of incoherence, it bobbles every decisive scene that it tries to build (excepting maybe one crucial pep talk that Debbouze delivers into a bathroom mirror, which the actor’s tremendous likeability halfway sells), uses its Parisian backdrop in the most unimaginative “triptych” fashion possible (“Do we have time to ‘do’ Sacre-Coeur before lunch?”), and stymies any chance for the considerable charms of the leads to take effect by glomming them up with mouthfuls-upon-mouthfuls of literal-minded soul-searching dialogue.

Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling. Reprinted with permission, copyright Nick Pinkerton, indieWIRE 2007.)