A dystopian, political, topical and fantastical musical from Africa, “Neptune Frost” is as unusual a film as you’ll see this year.
This Rwandan musical is cryptic and meandering, and easier to decipher than it is to follow. But like an opera in a language you don’t know well, even if they weren’t contorting and embellishing words and phrases in song, “Neptune” cuts through its own noise to speak to uncomfortable universal truths about Life Today.
That device you’re reading this review on? It’s got coltan in it. And chances are, you don’t know and don’t want to know what it is or how it got there. But maybe if that message is wrapped in songs in a colorful African fantasy it’ll go down easier.
In a coltan mine, ununiformed soldiers stand guard over slaves who bust up the rocks and extract the precious mineral. A rifle butt ends one miner’s suffering and prompts a singing protest, with a drum band appearing as magical accompaniment.
“Tekno” is no more.
Neptune, a pan-sexual symbolic figure played by Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja, rejects the “opiate of the masses” words of the preacher that presided over his/her/their friend’s funeral, bashes the pastor in the head and goes on the lam.
A cross-country odyssey that takes us over lakes and through villages ensues, with songs — “terrabytes in C-major,” and poetic speeches about the “free labor” (modern slavery) wrought by “unending war” in the region, wars that lead to “free labor” via “the currency of our depletion.”
Gender is fluid throughout the film as characters travel from “death to other passages,” dropping into dreams where the prophecies of The Wheel Man — a phantom with a bicycle wheels headdress — are delivered.
And how are those amplified? On the world wide web, by a hacker named “Martyr Loser King” who gets the word out that “WE power the system” and “The miner is the POWER source” to a world that just wants cheap cell phones, you guys.
As you might expect from an obscurant film like “Neptune Frost” (You do NOT want to know who ‘Frost’ is.), someone at some point is obligated to narrate, in Swahili, “Maybe you’re asking yourself, ‘WTF is this?'”
Striking, beautiful and beautifully-costumed characters with symbolic names (“Psychology,” “Innocence,” “Memory”) talk in poetic riddles.
“The mountains have not awakened.” “Their fire is our breath.” “The sunlight does not burn the ground.”
“One who swallows cocoanut husks trusts his anus.”
The pacing and deliberately opaque storytelling “won’t be to every taste,” — critic speak for a “challenging” film. But co-directors Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyma give us a sci-fi dreamscape, a colorful slice of Africa, lovely multi-lingual music, and a “There’s no such thing as a free iPhone” message in their musical.
That’s quite the hack they’ve pulled off.
Rating: unrated, some violence
Cast: Cheryl Isheja, Elvis Ngabo, Kaya Free, Eliane Umuhire, Dorcy Rugamba, Bertrand Ninteretse, Trésor Niyongabo and Eric Ngangare
Credits: Directed by “Swan” (Saul Williams, Anisia Uzeyman), scripted by Saul Williams. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:44