Mahamat-Saleh Haroun‘s fifth film to date tells the tale of Souleymane (Souleymane Deme) – known as Grigris to his friends – an immensely skilled dancer living in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena. Due to a debilitating leg injury, however, he struggles to hold down even manual labor, while seemingly the only joyous aspects of his life are his dancing and a nascent romance with a local prostitute, Mimi (Anais Monoroy). When his step-father wracks up hefty medical bills, Grigris decides to start skimming shipments of gasoline from the illegal racket he works for as a runner, yet when his boss finds out, he’s given just 48 hours to pay the funds back, on threat of death.
Haroun smartly throws us straight into the African milieu from the get-go with an entertaining scene of the titular character showing off his exceptional dancing skills, made only all the more characteristic by his disability. This is suddenly juxtaposed with Grigris’ more provincial home life, taking pictures for the locals and helping out around the village. There is a constant to-and-fro of aspiration and adversity being depicted, while the city’s economic and religious specifics – the latter including numerous references to Allah and the Qu’ran – are more subtly cossetted into proceedings.
Binding the picture together is a quietly composed performance from Deme as a likeable if placid sort, sweet and unassuming, yet undeniably a sublime physical specimen and great dancer, even despite – or perhaps in part because of – his physical disadvantage. Still, Grigris is a man of fine, almost disadvantageous temperament, gentle even when fending off a lecherous man trying to take Mimi home. Instead, he is more likely to turn his violence inward, notably as he repeatedly smacks his head against a wall to give the impression to a local gangster that he has had his gasoline shipment stolen.
Despite his theft of his boss’s goods, the picture painted of Grigris depicts a deeply moral man clinging desperately to the edge of means. We need no better indication of where his moral compass lies than when he positively refuses to take advantage of a drunk Mimi, who quite literally throws herself at him.
Haroun’s directorial approach is that of the laid back, observational slow burn. While it’s a story that’s admirably very simple and easily digested, Grigris is also at times rather earnest which, when combined with a languid pace, will make for a somewhat testing sit for less-sentimental audiences. The romantic aspects are, to the pic’s credit, nicely downplayed, not opting for the simplistic schmaltzy route for the most part, at least until the cheesy pop music makes an appearance later on. By film’s end, however, the energy of the piece has well and truly run out in all aspects, despite some intriguing elements throughout.
The overarching message seems to be that crime pays right up until the moment that it doesn’t, and that it’s not possible to live with the protagonist’s meek mindset and also operate as a successful criminal. This leads to a surprisingly generic third act, with Grigris being faced with the aforementioned “get my money or die” deadline derived from countless banal thrillers over the years. A curious ending very nearly shifts the tone towards the surreal, though the nature of this comical deus ex machina climax might strike some viewers as disingenuous in light of the suffering we’ve witnessed prior. Ultimately too spare to completely satisfy, the pronounced feeling coming out of this film is that it needs more dancing.
The Upside: A stirring central performance brings plenty of gravitas to a familiar core story of triumph against the odds; evocatively shot but at the same time agreeably humble
The Downside: The meandering pace undermines our attempt to emotionally engage with the narrative which tighter editing could have remedied; the third act also feels too familiar on the whole, and the final two minutes are sure to puzzle many
On the Side: The spry music comes courtesy of Senegalese composer Wasis Diop.