Faat Kiné
Reviewed in July 2009

Director: Ousmane Sembène. Cast: Venus Seye, N'Diagne Dia, Mariame Balde, Mame N'Dumbé Diop, Awa Sene Sarr, Tabara N'Diaye, Ibrahima Sane, Marie Au Diata, Ismaila Cissé, Pape Faye, Samba Wane, Eloi Coly, Lamine N'Diaye, Aida Kamara, Ibrahima Sow, A. Bernard Dième, Adama Diagne, Bachirou Diakhaté, Josephine Zambo, Massamba Seck, Oumar Seck. Screenplay: Ousmane Sembène.

Photo © 2000 Filmi Domireew/New Yorker Films

My favorite trait of the two previous Ousmane Sembène films I have seen, 1968's Mandabi and 1974's Xala, is their unique brand of subtlety. One is never in doubt as to Sembène's basic political stances or the overarching targets of his critique, but his ingenuity as both a storyteller and a thinker arises from the wise, colorful balance he achieves between, on the one hand, the strength of his most urgent convictions and, on the other, the even-handedness with which he zeroes in on aspects of absurdity, hypocrisy, and compromise almost eveywhere. He's able to spread the application of critique liberally around his fluid, multi-character narratives without refusing to identify with some positions more than others, or sinking into a kind of nihilistic relativism. This kind of bracing intelligence and measured temperament allows him to make astonishingly complex and revisitable movies despite what seem, on first glance, like stripped-down or one-dimensional performances, and despite a naturalistic style that calls almost no attention to itself beyond the sheer vividness of palette in his shots—as much a function of rich, eye-popping Senegalese dress as of Sembène's own lenswork and production design.

I mention all of this because Faat Kiné, released when Sembène was 77 years old, eight years after his previous feature, threatens in some of its early sequences to upset or at least to coarsen these associations I have with Sembène's artistry. Venus Seye's performance as Fatou Kiné N'Diaye Diop, the no-bull manager of an auto-service station in Dakar, starts at such a heightened level of ostensive pantomime (huffy exasperation, overt sauciness, wide-eyed disbelief and suffering of fools) that I wondered how fully Sembène would be able to cook his deceptively nuanced magic from such a blunt and overwhelming main ingredient. Even as the film hits some of those familiar, sidewinding rhythms—picking up characters and plot strands and setting them back down in a seemingly irregular order, so we're not quite sure who will propel the main action or instantiate the key conflicts of the story—the shot/reverse edits and flat lighting augment the impression that Faat Kiné isn't getting off to quite the graceful, fully engaging start that Mandabi and Xala both achieve without appearing to strain all that much. The film's cinematic ambitions lag a little behind its novelistic urge to construct a spirited central character and use her prismatically to expose her own contradictions as well as the shortcomings of her culture and her acquaintances. Though Sembène's work always has a jaunty spirit and a convivial rhythm that even the better films of John Sayles often lack, a basically intrigued but ever-so-slightly restive viewer of Limbo or Sunshine State might have some sense of how I felt over the course of Faat Kiné's opening movements, as Kiné drops off her anxious son Djib (N'Diagne Dia) and daughter Aby (Mariame Balde) for their Baccalaureate exam and, upon arriving at work, haggles with a badly crippled and probably homeless man named Pathé (Ibrahima Sow) who has lost the expensive wheelchair that she bought him. I appreciated Seye's tart means of signaling that Kiné loses interest in philanthropy once her beneficiaries fail to mimic her own knack for proper self-management. I chuckled, too, at the intertextual resonance by which the same needy, broken-bodied street dwellers who so righteously converged on the arrogant protagonist and would-be civic leader at the conclusion of Xala atavistically resurface here as quotidian aggravations within Kiné's entrepreneurial routine. You can't quite tell whether Sembène is setting her up here for a Xala-style chastening or for a lucid but forgiving defense, and because the scenes themselves aren't nearly as textured as the authorial connections they suggest, you may not feel as curious to find out as Sembène might wish.

I gotta pee vs. extended flashback --> mother's flat severity B+

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