Rejuvenation is the jubilant outcome of My Voice, a satirical musical-comedy from Guinea-Bissau and a trio of European countries. Vita’s initiative, after she finds her voice (where else?—in Paris), leads the port city of Bissau to this unexpected outcome. Flora Gomes, who studied filmmaking in Cuba, had made The Blue Eyes of Yonta (1992), whose burst of song and dance, at best, lightened its deep pessimism. Thanks to Vita, things now are looking up.
Accompanying in long-shot a children’s eerily winding procession by the sea, the film opens with the humming of a haunting tune that reminds us a little of the main theme from Federico Fellini’s La strada (1954), hence, the death of innocence. We do not know this yet, but the lovely voice we are listening to belongs to Vita, who is as yet unseen. The children head into the city, where we see what they are carrying: decorously laid out, a dead parrot, in an appropriately small open coffin. The “school bird” isn’t the only fatality to mourn; elderly Mr. Sonho died last night. His wake has canceled plans for Vita’s celebratory send-off. Vita is off to college in Paris. Summing up cultural confusion as a result of conflicting colonial and native histories, a priest has been invited to Mr. Sonho’s wake (“He was a good Catholic!”) and a pig is to be ritually slaughtered (“He was a good animist!”) Meanwhile, folks try finding a public place for a bust of Amilcar Cabral, the father of the nation’s independence who was assassinated in 1973.
Prior to Vita’s solitary leavetaking, a number of things occur. Dressed in white, a man in a red car, who is scheming on his cell phone, pursues Vita throughout the streets; for the umpteenth time Yano is proposing marriage to Yano, but she wants nothing to do with him. She can hardly be impressed by his best argument: “I’m not the worst of men!” He is pretty bad, though: this newly appointed deputy mayor is an image of African corruption, one who is currently arranging for a personal windfall from inflated food prices. Also, Vita is asked to judge a singing/dancing competition for the position of choral director—a disconcerting spoof of electoral freedom. Her mother reminds Vita of the family curse, that none of their women can sing without dying—a fearful tie to the past. Vita’s parting advice to her hometown: “Build coffins. The only sure thing in this country is death.” The extreme long-shot of her departure reminds us of the children’s funeral procession. Things need to improve!
In Paris, they do. Vita and a white boy named Pierre have fallen deeply in love. Pierre is a musician and a record producer. His parents own a restaurant, where he takes Vita for her birthday. The staff of workers sing impromptu about their lowly jobs: “Poverty unites us all! . . . Bye-bye, twentieth century! We have to find a new road for the new century!” Ah, this puts problems back home in a fresh context! Enlightened by this, and buoyed by Pierre’s great love and her love for him, Vita sings—and beautifully. It is at this point that we recognize the earlier disembodied voice and realize that singing—Vita’s liberation—has always been her destiny. Applying the necessary connection, Guinea-Bissau’s (and, more broadly, Africa’s) prospects also are more hopeful. Pierre produces a CD of Vita’s singing that becomes an international hit.
But what about the curse? Must Vita die now? Consider her name. Of course not!
For the sake of her parting promise to her mother, though, she returns home with Pierre to organize her own funeral, the symbolism of which, hopefully, will undo the family curse. Some things have changed: Yano has turned into a mensch and has had a new school built. Some things haven’t: the bust of Cabral still hasn’t been placed anywhere.
When she learns that Vita has sung, Vita’s mom believes that her daughter is a ghost. “How pretty you were,” Mom tells Vita. Indeed, most everyone speaks about Vita, even to her, in the past tense! But Vita knows what she must do; with the help of her community, she succeeds in coaxing her mother to sing! (“Dare! . . . What is more audacious than hope?”*) The music in this film, which will set your toes to tapping, is joyous and overwhelming.
What a pleasure to see Pierre’s total acceptance by Vita’s family and neighbors—and, of course, his embrace of all of them. A place is found, finally, for the bust of Cabral—the embodiment of hope in history and art both. “ . . . [T]he end is the beginning.” Gomes’s film ends in a lovely trickle of reverse motion to suit this lyric.
This wishful fantasy is not of the order of The Blue Eyes of Yonta. But it will make you smile and it will touch your heart, not least of all because of Fatou N’Diaye’s glowing charm and spirited beauty as Vita.
* Well, it would appear that Reverend Wright has seen at least one really good movie!