For its opening 15 minutes or so, director Moussa Toure's drama The Pirogue delivers a much needed shot of invigoration, like a brace of cold mountain air. As Toure's camera swirls around two beefy Senegalese wrestlers grappling with one another in a pit of dirt, the film captures the rugged, sinewy physicality that lies before it. Aides intermittently shower the men's shaved heads with mysterious colorful fluids intended to refresh them, anoint them, or both -- we're never told which -- while enervated masses throng around the perimeters.
This is enthralling for the respite that it provides from regular Hollywood contrivance; not a moment feels formulaic. Seeing these sculpted African bodies with their scarred eyes and sweat-beaded ebony skin against the backdrop of an indigenous Senegalese village, you're struck hard and singularly by cinema's ability to provide a window into different corners of the global village. The same applies to the scenes that immediately follow, as one of the male spectators, fisherman Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye), consorts with a local wheeler-dealer named Lansana (Laity Fall). Lansana offers Baye a considerable sum to captain the titular seafaring vessel, transporting around 30 Senegalese refugees on a seven-day voyage to Spain.
The bulk of the narrative transpires on the pirogue, a kind of massive dugout powered by an outboard motor. The action unfolds among the huddled and starving masses, making this an informal cinematic descendant not only of Hitchcock's Lifeboat, but of the most fascinating substory in Cedric Klapisch's Paris, which also involved a boat-bound Senegalese refugee. The movie's dramatic conceit has also earned comparisons in the press to Theodore Gericault's 1819 painting The Raft of the Medusa. This is an ideal set up for a low-budget picture, one whose core concept provides an excuse for Toure to strip the action down to the essence of pure human drama in its manifold gradations. He has his work cut out for him, as well, with such a perspicacious, knowing eye that we get little treasures of telling behavioral detail scattered throughout, as when one man loses his best friend in an accident and is the only one who keeps his eyes open in the group prayer that follows. This level of insight, with the inference and acute observation that it demands of the audience, is nothing short of brilliant.
Also to the movie's credit, the interpersonal dynamics on the boat repeatedly sidestep cliche. We're given a few characters so distinctly Senegalese that most westerners will never have encountered anything like these individuals before. This is particularly true of one passenger -- a sad-eyed, middle-aged man stricken by such crippling anxiety that the crew must temporarily bind and gag him to prevent him from jumping overboard into the ocean. His sole joy in life seems to be a pet hen that he hugs to his chest and carries around like a security blanket; it's a weird but poignant detail that doesn't get any additional elaboration but benefits from the lack thereof: The character is not simply curious, but beguiling and delightful.
The combination of the narrative setup and the size of the ensemble prepare us for a whole patchwork of equally quirky, interesting types and situations. This means that the film sets the bar considerably high, and Toure unfortunately fails to clear it. We do get scattered arcs, in the movie's all-too-short 87 minutes, but an inadequate number of them. If Toure really wants to do justice to this tableau, he either needs to more deeply mine the relationships that he does hand us, or better yet, expand his focus to incorporate additional characters and stories aboard the vessel, with the sort of narrative breadth that Hector Babenco utilized in his 2003 prison drama Carandiru. Either approach would lay a firmer tonal foundation for the tragic event that ultimately impacts several of the passengers, thereby giving the movie greater cumulative dramatic effect. As the picture stands, we see some of the men suffering and dying amid the journey and can scarcely even identify them when they pass away, let alone care. And the denouement is a complete washout: Toure's dramatic set-ups demand resolutions, and the elaborations and tie-ups that we get are so half-hearted and poorly executed that we feel cheated; giving ourselves emotionally to the story means trusting the director to follow through on his implicit promises of narrative closure, and he seriously lets us down.
All told, the existence of The Pirogue (aka La Pirogue) is a fine thing, insofar as the film constitutes a vehicle for indigenous Senegalese cultural expression. It does showcase Toure's talent on many levels, and if taken on a scene-by-scene basis, it benefits from several beautifully-wrought moments and compelling exchanges. But it also seems highly unlikely to bring to the international film community the serious attention and critical respect that Senegalese cinema as a whole deserves. leave a comment --Nathan Southern