BERLIN — For a film about a day of atonement and reckoning in anticipation of impending death, Alain Gomis’ Today (Aujourd’hui) is laced with surprising moments of lightness amid the melancholy tenderness. Unfolding in a vein that might be described as impressionistic heightened naturalism, the French-Senegalese drama is somewhat earnest and draws attention to its quite studied visual aesthetic. But there’s a spirituality and soulfulness to the simple allegorical story that keep it captivating.
Played with understated intensity by American actor-musician Saul Williams (Slam), Satche is an apparently healthy man who wakes one morning at his mother’s house on the outskirts of Dakar aware that he will die at the end of that day. This is a place where death warns of its arrival 24 hours in advance, inspiring feelings of dread tempered by matter-of-fact acceptance.
Satche’s friends and family also know of the death sentence without being informed. A large group waits to greet him outside his room, some of them emotional, others stoic and supportive. They gather in a circle to acknowledge the grace of death and augur a beautiful final day, expressing thanks for the goodness of Satche’s life before bluntly outlining his shortcomings. That critical voice is led by his rancorous wife, Rama (Anisia Uzeyman).
He goes with his buddy Sele (co-screenwriter Djolof Mbengue) into the city, where he calls on an old flame (Aissa Maiga), a regal beauty still burned about being passed over for marriage. He leaves shaken after she taunts him by saying, “You are going to die, but you haven’t lived.” They visit Uncle Thierno (Jean Mendy), who holds court in a garden nestled in the middle of a tin-shack shantytown. Encouraging Satche to be grateful to have a day of calm preparation rather than to question his fate, Thierno gives him a sobering rehearsal of the ceremonial washing of the body. In a surreal scene, Satche is summoned to town hall to meet local dignitaries at a function in his honor that appears to have taken place without him.
The film is edited by Fabrice Rouaud with a rhythmic fluidity that suggests the porousness of time, and the day’s events proceed in this loosely episodic fashion. Satche experiences memories pleasant and sad, loving and hostile. He witnesses joy, madness, violence and, in a protest met by a riot squad, the hopelessness shared by many about the future. That strain feeds into the unanswered central question of why Satche returned to Senegal unexpectedly after a year of study in America.
Inexorably, the film builds toward a sense of peace and clarity, notably in the poignant, almost wordless closing stretch when Satche goes home to Rama and their two young children. Via small gestures like fixing a broken door handle or playing with the kids, he overcomes his wife’s resistance and they relax into mutual harmony. In one lovely jump-cut sequence, he sits down with her as night falls and he sees into the future when the children are in their late teens. When death arrives, it comes with gentle finality.
This is a quiet film, modest and dreamlike, full of extended silences punctuated by bursts of talk or lazy drumming. What’s refreshing is that unlike so many France-based directors whose excursions into Africa are marred by the patronizing quaintness of colonialist guilt, Gomis (who was born in Paris to a French mother and Senegalese father) balances respect for his cultural setting with healthy observational detachment and emotional economy.
The poetic sensibility is definitely mannered compared to that of the trailblazing Francophone African filmmakers such as Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene, Burkina Faso’s Idrissa Ouedraogo or Mali’s Souleymane Cisse, who put the cinema of that part of the world on the map. But there’s an unassuming, contemplative quality to Today that keeps you watching.
Elegantly shot by Christelle Fournier in crisp colors and with a pleasing yet unfussy sense of composition, the film perhaps is over-reliant on probing close-ups for its solemnity, homing in often on pensive eyes and fretful hands. But as the camera caresses skin, we are given evocative reminders of the temporary occupancy of the human body.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Saul Williams, Djolof Mbengue, Anisia Uzeyman, Aissa Maiga, Mariko Arame, Alexandre Gomis, Anette Derneville Ka, Helene Gomis, Charlotte Mendy, Tony Mendy, Jean Mendy
Production companies: Granit Films, Maia Cinema, Cinekap, Agora Films
Director: Alain Gomis
Screenwriters: Alain Gomis, Djolof Mbengue, with Marc Wels
Producers: Eric Idriss-Kanago, Gilles Sandoz, Oumar Sall
Executive producer: Oumar Sall
Director of photography: Christelle Fournier
Costume designer: Salimata Ndiaya
Editor: Fabrice Rouaud
Sales: Wide Management
No rating, 88 minutes