(director/writer/producer: Souleymane Cisse; cinematographers: Jean-Noel Ferragut/Jean-Michel Humeau; editor: André Davanture; music: Salif Keita/Michel Portal; cast: Issiaka Kane (Nianankoro), Niamanto Sanogo (Soma), Koke Sangare (Le chef de Komo), Aoua Sangare (Attou), Balla Moussa Keita (Rouma Boll, King Peul), Soumba Traore (Mother), Ismaila Sarr (Djigui Diarra, uncle), Youssouf Tenin Cissé (Attou’s son); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: R; Kino Video; 1987-Mali/France/Burkina Faso, in Bambara with English subtitles)
“A visually spellbinding masterpiece.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
African director-writer Souleymane Cisse’ Yeelen is a visually spellbinding masterpiece. It’s a stunning mythical fantasy set in the ancient Bambara culture of Mali (formerly French Sudan) in the 13th century. This was some time before Morocco invaded in the 16th century, as Bambara’s destruction was prophesized by the blind seer in the film. Cisse’s adaptation is from the ancient oral Mali legend. He was born in 1940 in Bamako, the capital of Mali, where he lives today after returning in the 1960s from studying filmmaking in Moscow.
Yeelen tells of the West African spiritual journey of Niankoro (Issiaka Kane), a young warrior possessed with gifts of great magical power but abandoned at birth by his evil sorcerer father Soma (Niamanto Sanogo) who doesn’t want to share his powers with anyone else. With the help of his also abandoned mother (Soumba Traore), in this universally understood Oedipal tale, he escapes the attempts of his father to kill him. Niankoro studies the mysteries of the gods (Komo) with his wise mother as teacher, but his vindictive father is closing in on him as he chants to the god Mari for help in finding him and with the aid of his Kolonnkalani (magic pestle) carried by two servants on their shoulders he’s able to evoke great magical power. He’s also helped by the talismen who respect his great powers, as they also chant for his son’s death. Mother tells him to go on his own to another country and seek his uncle Djigui Diarra’s (Ismaila Sarr) wisdom, who is his father’s twin but was banished by Niankoro’ grandfather with the blinding light of the gods. She gives her son a parting gift of the family magical fetishes to protect him on his journey and the magical eye as a gift for the uncle.
The journey takes Niankoro across arid Bambara, Fulani and Dogan lands. In one of his stops, the tribal villagers want to kill him for stealing a goat. But he uses his magical powers to bewitch the warriors and says he didn’t kill them only out of pity. When the tribal King Rouma Boll (Balla Moussa Keita) asks his help to defeat a neighboring warrior tribe routing his, Niankoro pleases him greatly by setting bees on them and then trapping them in surrounding fires. The King asks another favor to help his barren youngest wife Attou (Aoua Sangare) become fertile, but Niankoro loses his honor as his penis betrays him and he has sex with her. Seeking death from the King for his disgrace, he’s instead allowed to keep her as a wife and she will act as his guide through the unfamiliar desolate terrain to his uncle’s home.
His kind and wise uncle sees all and sends Niankoro out with the proper knowledge to make the necessary confrontation with his father, after he tells of his doomed prophecy for his people that also has a silver lining. Leaving his pregnant wife with his uncle for safekeeping, the film ends in the brightness it began as a climactic battle takes place between father and son. The result is a circular tale running parallel to the creation myth about birth and rebirth, indicating that death holds out hope of a return to the same light one sees when born (the film begins with the sunrise (birth) and towards its close there’s a dazzling display of brightness (rebirth). The film’s last shots are poignant. Niankoro’s son and wife are in the battlefield where father and son magically dueled to their death, each holding up a Kolonnkalani projecting a blinding light. The son (symbolically meaning the sunlight) is lifting two fertile egg-like objects buried beneath the desert (a sign of rebirth indicating hope that knowledge can be passed down through the generations instead of buried in the sand and forgotten).
Yeelen won the jury prize at the 1987 Cannes festival. Souleymane Cisse (“Waati”-1995) is reputed to be the second best African director, with the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene considered by many as the top dog. But this film is the best African one I have seen. It also rates fairly high up there in all the films I have ever seen. It has been the most highly praised African film made to date. There isn’t a Hollywood blockbuster that comes close to this sparse dialogue and lyrical visionary work as far as creating such a powerfully felt sense of being and universe, and it’s amazingly accomplished with a nonprofessional acting cast. It’s simply uncompromising cinema, featuring fantastic landscapes and gripping magical images of light and fire and a story that bristles with life and passion and depth and purity. From what I understand, Cisse had to overcome some difficult situations such as the death of the film’s father that caused reshooting his early scenes with a replacement, bad weather, and financial woes. But the karma must have been good, because this film turned out to be everything that a masterpiece should be.
REVIEWED ON 12/17/2003 GRADE: A+ https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/