'Our Lady of the Nile' ('Notre-Dame du Nil'): Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
An engrossing tale of growing tension that explodes into violence.

Afghan director Atiq Rahimi views the brewing war between the Hutus and Tutsis in the conflict between elite Rwanda schoolgirls, based on Scholastique Mukasonga’s novel.

In Scholastique Mukasonga’s semi-autobiographical novel Our Lady of the Nile, the author describes a Catholic boarding school she attended high on a hill in Rwanda. The girls came from the country’s elite and were educated to be the future ruling class, until the long-simmering conflict between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi broke out into genocide, and 27 members of her family were killed.

In this terrifying film adaptation, director Atiq Rahimi shifts his lens from his native Afghanistan, the setting of Earth and Ashes and The Patience Stone, to the misty jungles of Rwanda in 1973, 20 years before the Hutu-led government began the mass slaughter of the Tutsi and Twa ethnic groups. The film doesn’t propose reasons for the genocide but rather re-creates the atmosphere of mindless hatred leading up to it.

At the gated Notre-Dame du Nil boarding school perched above the city, run by Catholic nuns and priests, the high school students feel protected from the world as they are prepped to take their place as the wives of top-ranking officials. Most of them are Hutus, but a small quota is reserved for Tutsi students. Veronica (Clariella Bizimana) and her friend Virginia (Amanda Santa Mugabekazi) are both Tutsi. Veronica’s physical traits — tall, long neck, thin nose, high cheekbones — catch the eye of an aging French colonialist, Monsieur Fontenaille (Pascal Greggory), who spontaneously begins sketching her face. The nuns aren’t happy, but Veronica is secretly delighted with the portrait he gives to her.

Though Fontenaille’s motives aren’t explicitly sexual, he is certainly a worrisome oddball. When Veronica and Virginia venture onto his coffee plantation, he shows them a makeshift pyramid of bricks, under which he claims lies an Egyptian temple. He venerates the Tutsi as descending from the black pharaohs and has a fine collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. In a fantasy sequence, the ancient warriors in one of his paintings come alive to protect their Queen. Veronica, drugged and dressed in a toga, seems to buy into this myth, which is confirmed by an old hermit witch to whom Virginia applies for help. While the witch doctor is depicted as a positive source of African wisdom, energy and healing, Fontenaille’s black magic is dismissed as a dangerous colonial import.

Back at school, more concrete horrors are afoot. Summer vacation is over and graduation is around the corner. Contaminated by the rising ethnic tensions in the country, the giggling girls in pressed school uniforms shed their innocence. The lovely Frida, who has excited jealousy because she is the girlfriend of the ambassador from Zaire, is happy to learn she’s pregnant. The priest and nuns are not. They abort the baby on school premises, with deadly consequences.

Then there’s the rising tide of anti-Tutsi sentiment, stirred up by Gloriosa (Albina Kirenga), the daughter of a high-ranking government minister. Her hatred is particularly directed towards the aristo-looking Veronica.

Every day, the girls are taken on a walk up the hill by the nuns to visit Our Lady of the Nile, a statue in which the Virgin Mary has a black face. Hell-raiser Gloriosa decides the Madonna’s Western features aren’t Hutu enough and involves her timorous follower Modesta (Belinda Rubango) in a raid to broaden her nose. Their laughable expedition becomes the sinister catalyst for unleashing ethnic hatred when the girls fall in the mud and, rather than be reprimanded, lie that they were nearly raped at the hands of Tutsi attackers.

Rahimi envisions the final scenes of bloody violence as a chaotic series of senseless events perpetrated by a truckload of riled-up men waving sticks and knives. They are let into the school grounds by accomplices, while the pious schoolmasters cower cravenly behind locked doors, stopping their ears not to hear the screams of their horrendous vendetta.  

It’s a story that leaves a deep impression, and Rahimi films it compassionately, without grandstanding. However, the screenplay, which he wrote with Ramata Sy, does not always distinguish the characters clearly and it takes some time for the young non-pro actresses to bring their parts into focus.

There is top talent on the technical side in this France-Belgium-Rwanda co-production. DP Thierry Arbogast’s (Nikita, Lucy) portrait of Africa in the 1970s reads like a savage jungle momentarily tamed by the soft lights and white clothes of the Catholic school students. Editor Herve de Luze (who also worked on Rahimi’s The Patience Stone) gives each incident its due and elegantly connects the disparate narrative threads and moods running through the film. Some sophisticated music choices are gracefully inserted.

Production companies: Chapter 2, Les Film du Tambour
Cast: Amanda Mugabekazi, Albina Kirenga, Malaika Uwamahoro, Clariella Bizimana, Belina Rubango, Pascal Greggory

Director: Atiq Rahimi
Screenwriters: Atiq Rahimi, Ramata Sy
Producers: Dmitri Rassam, Rani Massalha
Director of photography: Thierry Arbogast
Production designer: Francoise Joset
Costume designer: Natalie Leborgne
Editor: Herve de Luze
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
World sales: Indie Sales

In French and Kinyarwanda
93 minutes