YEELEN (Soulaymane Cissé, 1987)

The following is one of the entries from my list of the 100 greatest films (through 2006) from Africa, Latin America & the Caribbean, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis

I am not familiar with Mali myth.
     Soulaymane Cissé’s medieval Brightness helps us out with this mythological orientation: “The two worlds, earth and sky, exist through light.” This film is about light—but the light of understanding as well as of material illumination. Instances of both abound.
     When does a boy become a man? Let me ruminate. As I was growing up, being neither Jewish nor Christian (or, possibly, by dint of my parents, both), I wondered that Jewish males were ritually declared adults at 13 while the Christian demarcation of male maturity was the christological age of 33—a twenty-year difference. How does one reconcile this discrepancy? I decided this: Judaism in this regard is projective, setting maturity as the consequence of a boy’s admittance into the adult community; Christianity, however, focuses on the individual boy’s relation to Jesus. In short, while some religions are primarily social, others are solitudinous.
     To confront the person who abandoned them both, the boy here abandons his loving mother. Additionally, the country’s survival is at stake. Soma, the father-king, feels obligated to vanquish son Nianankoro lest his own existence be the forfeit. Nianankoro beds his father’s new, young wife; but the whole to-do is less Oedipal, that is, psychological, than individual/emotional. Nianankoro’s motive and the outcome are less relevant than the journey that takes him to the confrontation with his father and better determines his adult status.
     Cissé’s beauteous film speaks its own truth. However, Nianankoro becomes “adult” by dint of experience, not mythological fiat. It is a cumulative process, which we watch unfold. Moreover, we question everything we see, including “the terror” that Nianankoro’s mother indicated that Soma was and would be, but who also plays his part in helping his son realize the full benefits of identity: hopefully, Africa’s future.

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