“Saloum” opens and closes with the same voiceover, one about revenge being like a river. That suggests a movie that builds inexorably on a straight line. But despite a fatalistic undertow, both figuratively and literally, Jean Luc Herbulot’s Senegalese film proves narratively and tonally more like a river itself, carving out new courses as it proceeds, adopting new tones along the way, a movie so determined not be any one thing that it’s difficult to know how even to label it. A horror thriller? A sociopolitical horror thriller? A supernatural sociopolitical horror thriller? Crazy thing is, these variations not only engage the viewer every step of the way but ultimately all hold together, even if the denouement comes up just a bit short.
After the prefatory voiceover, “Saloum” drops us in alongside Bagnui’s Hyenas, a trio of nominally mythical bandits named Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah), and Minuit (Mentor Ba), who are extracting both a Mexican drug lord and reams of gold from the 2003 Guinea-Bissau coup. Though the scene is horror, with slaughtered bodies lying as far as the eye can see in the street, the rendering of it, the pop music and roving camera and cocky countenance of the characters is pure pulp. That tone quickly mutates into something more low-key eerie when the Hyenas’ escape plane leaks fuel, necessitating an emergency landing in the Senegalese delta giving the movie its name. Stashing their haul and trekking to a holiday camp Chaka knows, they plan to lie low and gather supplies, aerial shots cutting the trio’s introductory cockiness down to size, just three men in a strange land. Scenes with the camp’s proprietor Omar (Bruno Henry) turn contemplative, especially a dinnertime conversation evoking the French Plantation scene of “Apocalypse Now.”
Coppola himself, though, has said the French Plantation scene was intended as a narrative rest, and there is no real rest in “Saloum,” not even in this camp, not even during this dinner, where the tension among the mercenaries, Omar, the other guests, and a suspicious police captain comes to a boil even as the characters dig deeply into the past, present, and future state of West African affairs. The mere manner in which Chaka switches from the menacing tint of sunglasses to scholarly spectacles midway through crystallizes the dueling intelligence and malice infusing not just this scene, but the rest of the movie too.
Initially, Omar comes across caring and congenial, demonstrated in how there is no financial cost to staying in his camp, only the understanding that you have to pitch in and help out, assigned a chore each morning. These evoke the collection action he cites as being necessary to Africa’s survival more than outsiders strip-mining all its precious resources. Even that, however, comes at a cost, illuminated in the movie’s big secret, not to be revealed, but simultaneously suggests how even the well-intentioned have to cut deals with the devil while serving as a wicked metaphor for the continent’s exploitation of children as soldiers. True, “Saloum’s” paranormal twist is when it finally runs into the wall of its meager budget, the special effects failing to inject the intended horror or suspense. Still, the movie concludes smashingly, with an image tying the whole movie together by hearkening back to the opening words, words it repeats for effect, our history, our past, always there to drag us back down.
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