Friday, November 8, 2013

#685: Touki Bouki

(Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973)

The second of two African films in the Martin Scorsese World Cinema collection, Touki Bouki is also the more innovative and foreign in the truest sense of the word. Mambety's style is both elemental and post-modern, indebted to Soviet cinema of the 50s as much as Goddard movies of the 60s. It's also a bit of a slog at home, where it was never meant to be seen.

The story revolves around two Senegalese youngsters who dream of a new life in Paris but seem stuck repeating silly mistakes in their home country. The details of the story are of little concern, and what sticks out in Touki Bouki are the surreal fantasy sequences and the grounded portrayal of Senegal. Both are given equal weight and yet never forced on the viewer - this is a movie only a native could make, the difference between Charles Burnett - a virtual native of Los Angeles - producing Killer of Sheep and Billy Wilder making Double Indemnity. It's not just the subject matters and social intentions that separate those two approaches to a place, and Touki Bouki follows the in-the-know pattern. This is one major place where it separates from its obvious spiritual cousin, Breathless, which is not especially tied to Paris (though this seems quite intentional by Goddard). It's these casual portrayals of Senegal that are most appealing about the film, but the use of sound and visual cues in rhythmic editing from Mabety run a close second, and make the case for the film as one of the more innovative of the 70s.

The problem with the movie, however, is that it's dreadfully slow. There are long stretches without dialogue, the plot is minimal, and you never really get involved with any of the characters beyond a surface level. Considering the talent on display here, my guess is that the experience of seeing the film on the big screen would be notably more enjoyable, and I'd be less likely to drift in and out of the film's current.


  1. I saw 4 films from Sub-Saharan Africa : Touki Bouki, Xala, Yeleen and Black Girl. This one may be the best. Though I have an issue with it. It's editing was heavily European influenced, esp. soviet montage.

    I see the two Italian films you have in your top 10. I would like to discuss Italian cinema with you. Why those two? I have allot of respect and hold them in the highest regard, but why L'Avventura over something like Salvatore Giuliano? L'Avventura is one of the great works of art, but I can't easily say I put it over Salvatore Giuliano ( or vice versa, i'm making a point ). The latter possesses a remarkable amount of genius. It's visually striking, the whites of the Sicilian landscape are to die for, structurally it's amazing, easily jumping a time and summary, a remarkable visual work of art that captures a time, place and situation, not much movies far less docu-fictions could say they pull something like that off on that level.

    You wouldn't include Notorious? I cant put it better that Ebert did, it for me is THE camera movement movie, its camerawork in general is absolutely amazing.

  2. To me Notorious' visuals are a testament to cinema as an independent art form

  3. My top ten on the side here only includes movies that I hadn't previously considered great and watched for this project. Since I've seen Notorious at least 20 times, it would not be included here. I have created a top ten for each decade from the 20s on over at the Criterion site, notice that I rank Notorious as the number one film of the 40s, so I think very highly of it indeed:

    As for Salvatore Giuliano, I was extremely impressed with the film, but I felt I needed to give a closer watch before I could truly weigh in on its place in history. I found the denseness of the narrative and the film's incredible detail and sense of place to be difficult to crack on a first viewing. I was also only moderately impressed with L'Avventura the first time I saw it (which is the case with most Antonioni films for me), so I wouldn't be surprised if Rosi's film grows hugely in my esteem upon a second viewing.

    There are many other Italian films that I think measure up to L'Avventura and The Leopard, most notably 8 1/2, Nights of Cabiria, and Rome, Open City - and that's only counting Criterion films. I responded so well to those two films for very different reasons. The Leopard felt like an improved version of the old Hollywood epic, a movie that presented its history with a biased but expansive scope and grounded the viewer in its world. I was absolutely floored by Visconti's visuals and mastery of the camera. It's such a huge movie but it never feels out of control and even after three hours I was left wanting more. L'Avventura is more ethereal for me - there's something about it that feels new and challenging even fifty years later. I think there could be thousands of readings of the film, and I don't imagine I'll ever tire of exploring them. But Antonioni's marriage of plot, aesthetics, and technique is so impressive that I think the movie set the bar for many existential films to come. I wouldn't say it's more important than Rome, Open City (but what is?) or even Salvatore Giuliano, but I don't think it's easy to overestimate its impact on cinema.

  4. How important do you consider Rome, Open City to be? For me, it was the first "full fledged" Italian neo-realist movie, but it was not the first time neo-realism was seen by an Italian film. Ossessione possessed neo-realist traits. Also, this concept of "realism", (I put in quotations because to some extent I agree with Tarkovsky, cinema cannot be real or truly capture real) has been seen in cinema years before Rossellini's debut feature. The Soviets we probably the first to put on screen a mature illustration of "realism", Potemkin and Zemlya are prime examples. Charlie Chaplin also gave us some genius illustrations of what we will go on to see from the Italians, as far back as The Kid. Yes I know you will say that he was a tramp, but a man broke, forced to live in the street, sleeping on a sidewalk dreaming of a world of angels is very special. Taken independently, that scene, is not much different in concept relative to what the Italian Neo-realists did (Miracle in Milan is an easy example).

  5. I would go so far as to say Rome, Open City is the birth of modern cinema - if not technically then socially. Most of what is done in the film has been done before - for example, I just watched Redes from Mexico, which combined documentary and non-actor aspects with a socially aware narrative, to great effect - but the whole package was not really delivered until Rossellini, and the ethos didn't grab the world's attention until Rome's success on the international level. The film's influence can be followed directly to the new wave movement in France and, by association, New Hollywood, but more importantly it engaged directly with the nature of filmmaking and film watching, something that had been toyed with before but never fully accomplished. Many of the movies you are talking about had clear social intentions, but used cinema to convey these intentions. Rome, Open City used cinema to convey cinema's potential as a social tool - it's film as grace. No other work that I've seen prior to it has come anywhere close to this revolutionary concept.