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CANNES — An outside bet for the Palme d’Or in this year’s Cannes competition race, Grigris is the fifth feature from director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who was born in the troubled Central African republic of Chad but has spent most of his career in France. Haroun previously won the Jury Prize in Cannes for his 2010 drama A Screaming Man, and this low-key crime story unfolds with the same kind of thoughtful, resigned fatalism.
Like all Haroun’s features to date, Grigris is a French-backed co-production that was shot in his landlocked African homeland. The sleepy-paced, elementally simple plot initially requires a degree of patience, but the story ends up gently absorbing. Though Francophone territories are the film’s natural market, overseas festival programmers and niche distributors may find some appeal in a rare Chadian feature from a director with solid art-house pedigree.
Souleymane Deme plays the title character, an impoverished aspiring photographer with a withered, paralyzed leg that the script never explains. However, he turns this disability to his financial advantage by performing flamboyantly athletic, triple-jointed dance routines in nightclubs in return for public donations – indeed, one of these spectacular numbers opens the film. These irregular performances will not cover his sick stepfather’s medical bills, however, so Grigris resorts to desperate measures by begging for work from local crime boss Moussa (Cyril Guei). But his increasingly close bond with prostitute Mimi (Anais Monory) angers Moussa, forcing him into a potentially fatal double cross.
Strip away the African context and Grigris is a socially conscious morality play in a grand European tradition stretching back through the Dardennes and Ken Loach to the Italian neorealist movement. The characters feel archetypal, almost pulpy: the penniless outsider on a mission, the whore with the heart of gold, the charming but deadly gangster. But this over-familiarity is leavened for non-African viewers by the exotic prospect of seeing Chad on screen.
Although Haroun’s shooting style is fairly conventional, he frames some lovely images here. The sequence in which Moussa’s gang of gasoline smugglers wade through a watery labyrinth of tunnels, silhouetted in chemical orange and sickly green, has a hellish kind of beauty. The performances are also interesting, with Deme exuding an oddly hypnotic screen presence despite his perpetually blank expression and minimal dialogue. The final act of revenge feels a little too casual for such savagery, but it also provides an emotionally satisfying resolution to an engaging tale of quiet desperation.
Production companies: Pili Films, Goi Goi Productions, France 3 Cinema
Producer: Florence Stern
Starring: Souleymane Deme, Anais Monory, Cyril Guei, Marius Yelolo
Director: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
Writer: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
Cinematographer: Antoine Heberle
Editor: Marie-Helene Dozo
Music: Wasis Diop
Sales company: Les Films du Losange, Paris
Unrated, 101 minutes
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