Thursday, October 27, 2005

Picked Flick #91: Hyenas

African cinema has always ranked down in the absolute dredges on the list of American appetites, somewhere in the vicinity of Brussels sprouts, socialism, and the learning of foreign languages. Not that I imagine that these films are lighting big fires on the European or Asian markets, either. Even last year's critical phenomenon Moolaadé, directed by the renowned Senegalese master Ousmane Sembène and centered around the outrageous and topical problem of female circumcision, couldn't penetrate the competition lineup at Cannes, which ceded valuable space to such cubic zirconia as The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and the Coen Brothers' D.O.A. remake of The Ladykillers. Almost 18 months later, its American DVD release is nowhere in sight. Maybe the issues so often addressed in African cinema—economic plights, political breakdowns, male bragging rights, women's subjugation, paralysis in "tradition," perils of "progress"—are just too discomfiting to observe from the outside, perhaps because none of us can pretend that we are truly outside the complex circuits of both complicity and victimhood. Maybe it's the tonal sophistication, so easily dismissable as tonal simplicity, that disconcerts: from what I hear, and again, I'd like to find out for myself, Moolaadé is, like so much politically charged cinema from West Africa, is really rather droll. Still, what accounts for all the cool kids rushing to, say, the spare but so often precocious Iranian cinema of the late '90s, when you still can't dragoon a halfway decent audience to an African anything? </Rant>

Djibril Diop Mambéty's funny, harrowing, colorful, and terrifically astute Hyenas is an emblematic case of a masterpiece—and a good time at the movies, to boot—that these cultural trends wholly short-change. Heroically, it did participate in the Cannes competition lineup in 1992 and in that year's New York Film Festival, it was micro-mini released in commercial venues that fall, and it's available for rent on DVD or VHS. So, hop on it, and observe how piquantly Mambéty adapts Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit, one of the twentieth century's great plays, and infuses the material with exciting, entertaining, and shrewd new meanings within the West African context. The plot concerns how Linguère Ramatou, an acerbic, broken-bodied, and vengeful old woman, returns to her small-town hamlet after decades of amassing a shadowy fortune. She now indulges the citizens with improbable luxuries and other, decadent incentives so long as they agree to execute the town's most popular citizen—in this version, an avuncular barkeep and shopowner named Draman Drameh, who long ago denied having fathered the illegitimate child that occasioned Linguère's banishment in the first place. The bankrupt village, whose town hall is impounded in a very early sequence, has a peculiarly African (but also not peculiarly African) susceptibility to superficial remedies and cults of personality, and they are sure that the woman's promised fortune shall be their redemption, even as they profess outrage at the demand for Draman Drameh's head... and even as Linguère and Draman volley back and forth between nostalgic recollections of their ancient affair and bitter disputes over her grudge and its consequences.

So, yes, we have here another plotline that seems inhospitable to the kind of witty, almost tongue-in-cheek tone that governs several scenes, even as the lurid heart of Linguère's scheme and the tragic cooptability of the town of Colobane are never far from our minds. "These people have no ideals," Draman murmurs with contempt about his neighbors, having been picked, of all people, to escort Linguère on her homecoming tour. "They will soon enough," she responds, ominously but humorously foreshadowing the blackmail plot she's yet to reveal. The mayor of Colobane, his lectern festooned with a French flag, regales his subjects with proud, ringing endorsements of both the town and its suddenly favorite daughter; she icily thanks them all for their "unselfish joy" in so receiving her. Draman's wry and thoroughly disillusioned wife hunkers behind the bar, uncertain of which side of this spat she properly belongs on. The theatrical blocking of actors testifies to the stage roots of the material, even as the flat vocal affect applies an African trademark, and the emotionally rich closeups, smart framings, and eye-flattering colors refit the story seamlessly as cinema. The trickling build-up of imported and largely useless commodities is a good joke with a terrible and rather aggressively flaunted secret; this is a universe, our universe, where the farming of brand-name clothes, the provision of Pepsi (where once there was only Coke!), can we twisted both to sanction and disguise the deepest crimes. Hyenas, in a way, is like a Gold Coast forebear to Dogville, a homology you hear even in their titles, but where Von Trier's tract is bullyish with its theses and ostentatious in its formal conceits, Hyenas crouches in laughter and quiet, marshaling its armies at every increment of the tonal spectrum before suckering you, as real life often does, with the absurdity, the dailiness, the familiar face of tragedy. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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