Saturday, 11 February 2012

'Today' Berlinale (Competition) review:

Satche (Saul Williams) is a relatively young man with no obvious health problems, yet he is going to die. He knows it and, seemingly, so does his entire home town. Apparently, in this part of Senegal, people sense the day before their death that they will soon be taken by god - that the next day will be their last on Earth. And it's a celebrated event, observed by whole the community, with even minor local government officials in attendance.

This is never rationalised or explained, probably because "how" and "why" aren't strictly relevant questions to this movie. 'Today', or 'Aujourd'Hui' in its native French, is really a rumination on what a person does knowing they have one day left. It's about taking stock, finding out what's important and contemplating what comes next. Tradition dictates that Satche wake up in his mother's house, but how he spends the rest of this final day is (appropriately enough) up to him. And he spends it the way you might expect: saying goodbye to family and drinking with friends before settling in at home with his wife and young children. He even tries, in vain, to put right the wrongs of a previous romance.

Parisian director Alain Gomis has made a very sleepy, near dreamlike film with Williams acting as if in a limbo state between life and death. Aside from one vibrant sequence, that sees Satche dance down the street, being showered with presents and serenaded by cheering onlookers, the doomed protagonist is a sedate and mostly silent presence. It makes for a meandering (sometimes boring) feature, albeit with some neatly observed scenes (such as when Satche's relatives discuss his life in the past tense with him in the room, pointing out all his faults) and potentially interesting philosophical moments (at one point he takes tea with his soon-to-be mortician).

Towards the end Gomis plays some interesting games with time and reality, notably as Satche's kids suddenly appear to him as young adults. Has he avoided death by choosing to remain with his family or is this a moment of spiritual closure before death: a sign that everything will turn out ok when he leaves our mortal plane? Yet there aren't enough inspired touches like this to liven up the dominant tone of strained silence.

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