France-based Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's last feature, the Cannes-winning "A Screaming Man," involved father-son tensions against the backdrop of civil war. By comparison, his followup "Grigris" is something of a letdown, though it works well enough on the scale of a basic character study. The movie has a lot less on its mind and makes no drastic attempts to overreach. A straightforward tale of overcoming personal and professional challenges with no fancy dressing, "Grigris" goes down easy but offers nothing remotely fresh.
The title refers to the nickname of its slick protagonist, a young man named Souleymane (Souleymane Deme) whose killer dance moves make him a popular club presence in the small town in which he resides. Grigris' flexible physicality is especially impressive because of a bad leg that gives him a distinctive gait. Yet the disability isn't exactly a hindrance for Grigris, a seemingly well-liked presence who works for his ailing father. When their hole-in-the-wall business dries up, however, Grigris turns to a local illegal petroleum dealer to support his family, inciting a series of incidents that eventually put him in the gangsters' crosshairs.
In the meantime, he strikes up a romance with local prostitute Mimi (Anais Monory), for whom Grigris falls before he figures out her profession. Acting first for the sake of his family, then for the sake of his lover, and finally running for his life, Grigris is eventually forced to confront the outcome of his seedy associations in a perilous climax.
That's the entire sketch of a plot that writer-director Haroun offers up, as he relies less on story than the charisma of his nimble-footed lead, whose lanky physique is frequently captured in lavish interludes where he practices his hobby. Cinematographer Antoine Herberle brings a lush palette to the proceedings that alternates between the bright colors of daytime Chad scenery and the ominous shadows that engulf Grigris' world when he takes part in the smuggling routines. But the imagery does little to distract from a thin, overly familiar story in which our well-intentioned hero falls for a hooker with a heart of gold and attempts to smooth out the imperfections in their world.
Working-class hoofer Billy Elliot was living the high life compared to “Grigris,” the eponymous hero of Chadian writer-helmer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s typically studied fifth feature. The story of a disabled, dance-crazy young buck whose involvement in an illegal gasoline-trafficking ring eventually has him running scared, this elegant, geographically vivid pic is considerably leaner than its melodramatic premise might suggest, though wan characterization makes it less immediately engaging than Haroun’s last film, 2010′s Cannes jury prizewinner “A Screaming Man.” Distributors may well feel the same way, though fest programmers routinely starved for accessible African fare will keep the film’s dance card full.
With the film set in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, a large but still-disenfranchised city where radio carries a slow trickle of outside culture to the population, it’s perhaps appropriate that “Grigris” opens, quaintly, with an apparent reference to “Saturday Night Fever”: Dressed in a blindingly white dress shirt that mirrors the tiled dance floor, Souleymane (striking professional dancer Souleymane Deme, sharing a full name with his character) throws down some breathtaking moves at a local nightclub, delighting the regular crowd of admirers who have nicknamed him “Grigris.”
The name is perhaps derived from the term “gris-gris,” a talisman used in parts of West Africa as good luck charm. If so, it’s a cruel choice, given Souleymane’s consistent run of ill fortune — beginning with his paralyzed left leg, a disability that at least lends his dancing considerable distinction. By day, however, it makes the young man a social outcast, excluded from the city’s mostly menial job market and deemed unfit for purpose by its eligible women. Small wonder, then, that he finds love and a kindred spirit in another creature of the night, mixed-race prostitute Mimi (Anais Monory), whose light skin has further restricted her to the social margins.
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.
Mohamat-Saleh Haroun’s Grigris is a film of communities in contrast. How people identify themselves within a given social space is paramount to the director’s overt thematic interests involving family and region. But Haroun’s straightforward approach is surprisingly simplistic when compared to his nuanced direction of 2010’s A Screaming Man. With Grigris, he relies heavily on the character’s cliché external conflicts to convey a thinly explored ideology that gratuitously favours country living over urban existence.
In the film’s vibrant opening sequence, Souleymane (Souleymane Deme), a young photographer whose leg is hobbled with paralysis, enters a colorful discothèque to the applause of a large crowd chanting his stage name, "Grigris! Grigris!" He proceeds to dance for the adorning onlookers, bending and contorting in ways a normal human body could not. Flexibility allows Souleymane to entertain, but doesn’t afford him any real economic security. His situation grows more desperate when his stepfather grows extremely ill.
Patriarchs obviously interest Haroun since A Screaming Man dealt with the crumbling relationship between a Hotel pool cleaner and his protégé son. In Grigris, the patriarch is eliminated from the situation and replaced by a gangster who employs Souleymane for various shady dealings involving petrol smuggling. Their relationship is nearly always plot-driven, a superficial and familiar construct that foretells an inevitable narrative trajectory. Survival fuels Souleymane’s reckless actions in the second half of the film, mostly involving his relationship with a prostitute named Mimi (Anais Monory), but Haroun fails to create any tangible danger in this situation.