The Celluloid Struggle

The story of one man's fight for an independent Congo needs a bit more life

Revolutionary times have always been tempting backdrops for film stories. Some are fictional epics set against a historical backdrop (Dr. Zhivago, The Year of Living Dangerously). In these there's plenty of personal drama, love, and thrills, with the historical setting essentially background to the fictional derring-do. An alternative approach is the biopic (The Last Emperor, Lawrence of Arabia), a narrative that purports to tell a factual story of an unusual personality who embodies the turmoil around him. The recent French/Belgian release Lumumba takes the latter tack, with mixed results.

Patrice Lumumba was the first prime minister of the Republic of the Congo who died mysteriously after only two months in office in 1961. The official word was that his plane went down in remote territory, but rumors persisted that the CIA had him assassinated. There is some sense to this theory as Lumumba, a fervent nationalist, had begun to encourage Soviet aid to his civil-war-torn country, and it was entirely possible, goes the theory, that the United States wanted him out of the way.

Writer/director Raoul Peck and his writing partner, Pascal Bonitzer, jump on this mystery as their approach into Lumumba's life story. They begin at Lumumba's grisly death, offering only glimpses of what is going on and why. Then they ratchet back to follow Lumumba from his salad days in the then-Belgian Congo. Lumumba, a fresh-faced young man, finds work as a beer salesman but soon uses his persuasive powers to argue for independence as turmoil builds against colonial rule. When widespread violence erupts, Belgium offers to give the Congo independence, casting the move as a benevolent paternal gesture rather than a defeat at the hands of the Congolese people. Lumumba strikes a deal with Joseph Kasavubu, a stolid, fretful political rival to run the newly fledged nation. Kasavubu is named president while Lumumba becomes prime minister.

The ground under the Congo has ever been turbulent, though who killed Lumumba remains a question
The ground under the Congo has ever been turbulent, though who killed Lumumba remains a question

Soon Lumumba's fiery nationalist rhetoric upstages his ally, gaining the fury of the Belgians and the apprehension of the Americans, who fear he's moving toward the Iron Curtain. But Lumumba's attention is not focused on foreign alliances, according to this film. Instead he's focused on the tribal and sectional rivalries that threaten to tear apart the Congo now that the Belgians aren't around to give the nation cohesion. Lumumba's bitter rival, Moise Tshombe, the leader of resource-rich Katanga province, threatens to succeed. Lumumba's problems are compounded when his army's enlisted men revolt against their white officers. Meanwhile Lumumba's long-time pal Joseph Mobutu starts a campaign of his own, quietly seizing opportunities for himself amid the political turmoil.

All this true history offers potential for onscreen drama, and Peck succeeds to a good degree. There's a burnished, epic look to this accomplished production, which features solid performances, especially Eric Ebouaney as Lumumba and Alex Descas as Mobutu. Peck also is notably aided by excellent cinematography and a first-rate design team.Unfortunately that's not enough to give an unqualified rave to this ambitious film, which suffers from a didactic, confusing script. Most of the pertinent historical facts and incidents are depicted in Lumumba, but the pace and detail of this information are so cacophonous that the film is more likely to confuse than enlighten those unschooled in postcolonial African politics. The swirl of characters -- Lumumba, Mobutu, Kasavubu, Tshombe, and a dozen others -- aren't given much dimension or motivation.

The events hurtle along at a vertiginous rate, and while the filmmakers concentrate on speed, they tend to leave narrative clarity in their dust. The same can be said for characterizations. Lumumba may be the title role, but who he really is and what motivates him are never explained -- they are not even approached. He is portrayed as a sainted savior from start to finish, and the conflicts he faces are external. He's always right, always good, and always, ultimately, inert.

Too bad, since the film has one terrific, fascinatingly complicated character: Joseph Mobutu, who ultimately managed to defeat everyone else, changed his name to the grander Mobutu Sese Seko, and ruled the Congo for decades, seated regally upon imperial leopard skins, a self proclaimed demigod. Mobutu is a political figure of such Shakespearean proportions, it's a wonder Peck didn't make the film about him.

The reason most likely is ideological. Lumumba isn't portrayed as a flesh-and-blood, complex human being; he is an agitprop archetype, the idealist martyr, slaughtered by nasty American and European interests for daring to assert Third World identity. That's clearly Peck's thesis here, and it's a severe limitation. It's also, at times, a bore. The film tends to stall out in the middle: There's only so much political harangue one can take in a darkened cinema. It's telling that the scenes with the most impact are the quiet, domestic ones: when Lumumba visits his wife, who has just given birth, and when he receives a letter telling him of the death of his baby daughter. These brief glimpses of Lumumba the man make Lumumba the political figure all the more real. Would that there were more of those.

 
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