Review: Yeelen


In Souleymane Cissé‘s hypnotic Yeelen (Brightness), a young Bambara native, Niankoro (Issiaka Kane), leaves his mother’s house on a quest for spiritual enlightenment. Along the way he negotiates the implications of his magical powers and sexuality before battling the sorcerer father who abandoned him and his mother many years ago. This wondrous, purist statement evokes an ancient cosmos on the brink of destruction and whose rebirth hinges on the young Niankoro’s will to resist his father’s spiritual contrivances. “You have to know how to betray in order to succeed,” says the malicious Soma (Niamanto Sanogo) in the film, anticipating the final battle with his son but also pointing to various other patriarchal clashes. King Rouma Boll (Balla Moussa Keita) asks Niankoro to help his wife, Attou (Aoua Sangare), conceive a child, but the magician’s penis betrays him and sleeps with the woman instead. And rather than punish his wife and Niankoro, the defeated king gives the woman away to the young man to follow him as his wife and guide though the film’s barren topography. The focus on the power of the mother-son relationship in the film (Niankoro’s mother bathes herself with milk while praying for the safety of her son) truly evokes a Mother Africa dependent on female self-abnegation. This is a distinctly African film, but because the spiritual struggles depicted here are so familiar and often central to countless religions, its scope and appeal is a universal. Just as there’s no mistaking the story’s Oedipal overtones, there’s an Eden-like vibe to many of the film’s more elemental sequences. Cissé can evoke the wondrous magical powers of the film’s Bambara people with as a little as a dog and an Albino native walking backward in time. You won’t find an image this powerful and as deceptively simple in your average Hollywood blockbuster that never brings us as close to the souls of its characters as Yeelen does. Cissé tries to capture the Bambara people’s belief in time “as circular, not linear, always returning to that initial ‘brightness’ which creates the world.” The film begins with a shot of the red-hot sun rising on the distant horizon and ends with Attou and her son lifting two egg-like objects buried beneath the desert (presumably the bodies of Niankoro and Soma). It’s a sign of true genius that a director can summon the rise, fall and subsequent rebirth of the cosmos with such a profound understanding and respect for the shape of things.

 Cast: Issiaka Kane, Aoua Sangare, Niamanto Sanogo, Balla Moussa Keita, Soumba Traore, Ismaila Sarr, Youssouf Tenin Cissé, Koke Sangare  Director: Souleymane Cissé  Screenwriter: Souleymane Cissé  Distributor: Cinecom Pictures  Running Time: 105 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1987  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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