Directed by Mweze Ngangura and Benoit Lamy
In the Zaire capital of Kinshasa, the lifeblood of two different worlds collide. The first is a universe of music and dance. Nightclubs and bars pulsate with the sounds of some of Africa’s greatest musicians. As the nights meld together into eternal bastions of sound, life is beautiful. Some might even call it rosy. After all, it is one of only places in the country where you can strike it rich overnight and become an international star. But the other world is one of slums and desperate poverty. Here, the music comes from the heartbeat of the streets as people strive to survive. The unfortunate inhabitants of this world live by the rule of debrouillardise, or “the art of hustling to survive.” Many of these people are musicians who have yet to break into the world of success and fame. But most are regular people who must fight everyday to pay the rent and eat. It is in this city of brash contradictions that the brilliant farce La Vie est Belle (roughly translated to Life is Rosy) is set. In it, both worlds collapse on each other as its characters navigate the chaos of life and love.
Such a film can only be described through its characters. A simple rehashing of the plot would not do the film justice. So we begin with Kourou, a simple musician from a rural village. We first see him taking a bus to Kinshasa, brimming with dreams of becoming a successful musician. But seconds after boarding, he loses his only instrument. Stranded in Kinshasa with money and no instrument, Kourou walks the crowded streets devouring kebabs and fruit with hungry, but penniless eyes. This must have seemed familiar to Papa Wemba, Kourou’s actor. One of the most successful and famous musicians to arise from the African continent, there is something eerily authentic about Wemba stalking the streets. We wonder how long he must have toiled before finding economic salvation.
Before long he is under the employ of a fiery woman named Mamou. The (vocally) jealous wife of local club owner Nvouandou, Mamou orders him around like a madman. But there is reason for Mamou’s jealously. It has been twenty years since her marriage and she has yet to bear a child. To cure his impotency, Nvouandou consults with a local witch doctor. The sight of Nvouandou, all dressed up in his sharpest suit, huddled in the doctor’s tiny cell, bears witness to the absurd contradictions of life in Kinshasa: the struggle between appearing modern while stubbornly clinging to old world traditions. Instead of seeking medical help for his impotency, he takes the witch doctor’s advice that he must take on a second wife. Of course she must be a virgin. How else would the remedy work? The catch is that they must wait thirty days after their marriage before they consummate the relationship.
So Mamou must deal with the encroachment of Kabibi, a virginal young woman whom Nvouandou takes on as a second wife. To get rid of her competition, Mamou tries to hook her up with Kourou. Unbeknownst to her, the two have already met and are deeply in love. Matters are made even more complicated when Nvouandou forces Kourou to keep an eye on Kabibi to make sure that she doesn’t break her vow of chastity when he catches him stealing money from his suits. How deliciously ironic it is that the stolen money was being used to woo Kourou.
It isn’t long until Kabibi flees from Nvouandou to go back to her mother’s residence. So when Nvouandou uses Kourou as a courier of gifts to attract Kabibi back, is it any surprise when they arrive at their intended destination bearing the name of a different sender? All of these elements mix together into a delirious farce that plays like Jean Renoir meets Frank Capra: a healthy stock of characters are introduced early on and we watch the ensuing chaos as they go about mistaking identities, confusing who is in which relationship, and jumping into romances behind the backs of proper spouses. And much like Western farces, the characters all end up happily paired off at the end with everybody achieving their own measure of personal success.
But there are two other characters that are essential to the film. The first is a dwarf who sells kebabs for Kabibi’s mother. Appearing almost as frequently as the other main characters, he acts as a kind of near-omniscient commentator on the action, much like the interlocutor from Max Ophüls’ La Ronde (1950). With a perpetual smile on his lips, he peddles his wares, crying out, “La vie est belle.” This simple phrase takes on distinct dimensions of its own as it is repeated throughout the film. When Kourou stalks the streets, it is a message of hope. When Kourou and Kabibi flee Nvouandou, it represents cynical sarcasm. By the end, it is an affirmation of all that is good in life.
But the other character is the song “La Vie est Belle.” As Kourou hustlers around town, we watch as a street band coalesces and give birth to the song. Kourou energetically joins in whenever he can. As the film progresses, the song becomes more defined and articulated as the musicians become better and better. By the end, it is a fully fledged song presented by talented performers. In a way, it is a tangible representation of the dream of making it big as a musician in Kinshasa. Much like the title track from Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) it is a shape-shifting siren song that drives the plot forward and measures its progression.
Life is Rosy is one of those rare films that fill you with a complete sense of joy by the end. It isn’t the kind of manufactured joy that we feel when we finish a romantic comedy or a tense action film. Instead, it is a joy inspired by the film’s celebration of life itself. Life is Rosy explores the entire spectrum of human emotion and of life: joy, sadness, success, failure, fulfillment, disappointment. It cherishes each of these feelings as a precious experience integral to the human experience. As the film suggests, sometimes you just have to laugh and say that life is rosy.