Monday Movie: Yeelen, by Alexander Miller
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This review of Yeelen originally ran as a Criterion Prediction.
Usually with African cinema, we get neorealist parables and socio-political allegories from luminaries like Ousmane Sembene, Djibril Diop Mambéty, or Idrissa Ouédraogo whose folksy evocations often paint a more impactful narrative. While Cisse’s filmography (for me) is limited to this title, he’s adept at creating an environment replete with earthy mysticism, tribalism, and magic. The film casually adopts an aesthetic that realizes the challenging notion of sorcery, and its tangential execution reenforces the narrative power.
Yeelen relies on the more traditional storytelling devices, with Oedipal overtones, utilizing classic themes of good/evil, and birth/rebirth as a means of exploring national identity. Cisse rudimentary special effects are simplistically invigorating, trick cutting, superimposed images, are in tandem with the films naturalistic milieu. Yeelen is a film that has it’s own hypnotic rhythm and pace; it moves in a series of low and high shots. The environment is a predominant character, and we see every variation of the landscape – arid drylands, cracked clay soil, reed-filed marshes, while mountainous regions dominate the later portion of the films, in what may be an articulate use of elemental symbolism the area seems to harden with the story’s ascension. Cisse has the atmospheric tendencies consistent with Peter Weir’s early work; there’s this leering intimidation emanating from the natural terrain, it feels like a quiet form of courtesy and admiration.
Yeelen is a richly textured film that is quite frankly unlike anything else; it’s an erotic, bawdy, witchy tale that provides a broad spectrum of interpretation.