A raw and realistic portrait of a singer scraping by in modern-day Kinshasa, Felicite marks writer-director Alain Gomis’ return to the Berlinale competition after the 2012 Saul Williams starrer Today. Loosely scripted, intensely performed and loaded with energy, this documentary-style love-and-survival story is probably too long and unhinged for widespread play, but could see additional festival stints and pickups around Francophonia. An original soundtrack album would be welcome as well.

Kicking off with a frenzied concert scene where we see the titular Felicite (newcomer Vero Tshanda Beya) belting out a song to the tunes of local orchestra the Kasai Allstars, the film starts out like a rough news reportage on Congolese street music, only to delve deeply, if leisurely, into the characters and story as time progresses.

Eventually, we learn that Felicite is a single mom whose teenage son, Samo (Gaetan Claudia), was in a nasty motorcycle accident that has left him bloodied and bedridden at a municipal hospital. In order to pay for doctors to fix his broken leg — the operation costs around $600, which is a small fortune in the Democratic Republic of Congo — Felicite is forced to hit up everyone in town for money, including a mob boss who has her beaten violently by his thugs, only to wind up giving her what she wants.

Like Anna Magnani in Pasolini’s Mamma Roma, Felicite spends the first half of the film dragging herself through the mud to save her son, and Gomis tracks her every painful movement with probing camerawork (courtesy of ace French DP Celine Bozon) and a mix of extended music scenes and seemingly improvised drama. It’s intense if somewhat choppy filmmaking, although the passion of the amateur cast and vividness of the Kinshasa locations help make up for the narrative shortcomings.

The plot switches gears after the midpoint when Samo’s situation goes from bad to tragic, while Felicite begins an on-and-off relationship with Tabu (the memorable Papi Mpaka), a local mechanic who comes across as a nice guy until he gets a few drinks in him and turns into a drunken lout and womanizer. But he has a soft spot for Felicite that she can’t necessarily ignore, and the second hour of the movie focuses on both their budding relationship and the singer’s quest to get her life back together.

Like in Today, the storytelling in Felicite is a bit wobbly, and, especially in the latter scenes, drawn out almost to the point of exhaustion. But the languid pacing is partially compensated for by the moments of poetry that Gomis scatters throughout the film — whether in the concert scenes where the Kasai Allstars rock out to a back-alley crowd, or scenes of the Symphonic Orchestra of Kinshasa performing in an old warehouse space, offering up amateur renditions of pieces by Arvo Part and other composers.

Those sequences, filmed in cool color tones and intercut with dreamlike night shots of the jungle, are contrasted with the burning hot daytime scenes of Felicite navigating a city that seems to make safe, harmonious living virtually impossible – a place where she can only find true solace in the power of song. It’s a gritty and uncompromising take on the classic musical genre, and while the picture-perfect Hollywood couple in La La Land sings odes to the perils of love and stardom, Felicite simply sings to survive.

Production companies: Andolfi, Granit Films, Cinekap
Cast: Vero Tshanda Beya, Papi Mpaka, Gaetan Claudia, Kasai Allstars
Director: Alain Gomis
Screenwriter: Alain Gomis, in collaboration with Delphine Zingg, Olivier Loustau
Producers: Arnaud Dommerc, Oumar Sall, Alain Gomis
Director of photography: Celine Bozon
Production designer: Oumar Sall
Costume designer: Nadine Otsobogo Boucher
Editors: Fabrice Rouaud, Alain Gomis
Composer: Kasai Allstars
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Jour2Fete

In Lingala, French

100 minutes