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A down-and-dirty dramedy that’s as politically incorrect as it is both honest and emotionally apt, Scouting For Zebras (Les Rayures du zebra) follows the travails of a waning sports agent trying to turn a young African player into the next big thing in Belgian soccer. Starring Benoit Poelvoorde in a role that allows his comic talents to shine while revealing something deeper at the core, this unwieldy but poignant third feature from writer-director Benoit Mariage (Cow-boy) will reach theatres in Francophone markets (it opened Feb 5th in France), though it deserves wider play.
Tackling a touchy subject with dark humor and complex underlying morals, the film details the shrewd maneuverings of Jose (Poelvoorde), a soccer expert specializing in scouting Third World talents, bringing them to Europe and making them stars.
At least that used to be the case, as it’s clear when the story opens that Jose hasn’t struck gold in a while, and is hoping that this latest sejour in Abidjan will be worth his while. But although he quickly sees a pipe dream in the talented street kid Yaya (Marc Zinga), his job is soon complicated by a local mistress, Gigi (Tatiana Rojo), claiming Jose got her pregnant, and fellow Belgian recruiter, Koen (Tom Audenaert), who gets a bad case of jungle fever and nearly throws his career away.
Portraying a ruthless world where Africans are exploited for their athletic or sexual abilities by money-grubbing Westerners, Mariage — collaborating for the third time with Poelvoorde — never shies away from the tough realities of post-colonial countries like the Ivory Coast, whose general population continues to live in poverty while a selected few get anointed abroad. And while Jose seems to have a hand in making that happen, he’s hardly shown to be a martyr, banking off his foreigner’s status to live like a kingpin and harnessing Yaya’s talents for his own personal gain.
When agent and player finally arrive in Charleroi so the latter can try out for the city’s major club (nicknamed “The Zebras” for their striped jerseys), things get even messier, with Yaya suffering setbacks that may keep him from the starting lineup, although Jose does everything he can to save the day. Yet even then, the film never panders to easy sentiments, showing that Jose is mostly in it for himself, while other characters — both players and coaches alike — are rarely depicted as charitable.
It’s a ruthless vision that never succumbs to pure despair, thanks in a large part to Poelvoorde’s generous turn as a man who’s selfish, pragmatic, but sometimes capable of immense empathy — at least when it suits his needs. He’s also quite hilarious, sparing few punches when dealing with Ivoirian officials or Belgian trainers, while reveling in the company of Yaya and Gigi, who are no dupes to his slippery ways.
Shot with a gritty handheld style by Dardennes Bros. regular Benoit Dervaux, and mixing a playful score by Emmanuel D’Orlando with plenty of upbeat African tunes, Scouting for Zebras is at once merry and morose, using pointed humor to describe a situation that’s far from fair, but not without its small share of humanity.
Production companies: MG Productions, Formosa, CAB Productions, RTBF, RTS, SRG SSR, Belgacom, BNP Paribas, Fortis Film Fund, Boucan Films
Cast: Benoit Poelvoorde, Marc Zinga, Tatiana Rojo, Tom Audenaert
Director, screenwriter: Benoit Mariage
Producers: Boris van Gils, Michael Goldberg
Director of photography: Benoit Dervaux
Production designer: Catherine Cosme
Costume designer: Catherine Cosme
Editor: Philippe Bourgueil
Music: Emmanuel D’Orlando
Sales agent: Films Distribution
No rating, 80 minutes
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