The title of Senegalese director Moussa Touré’s new drama refers to the flat-bottomed motorboat transporting 30 West African immigrants on the Atlantic Ocean to Spain. It’s a trip that is meant to take a week, but it’s apparent right from the opening scenes of La Pirogue that this is going to be a choppy voyage. The opening scene, set at an opening-air wrestling match, is awash in soggy imagery of the grapplers dousing themselves in water from head to toe – an ominous overture for a film about men heading out to sea.
In moments like these, La Pirogue has a visionary aspect that suggests a director with a genuinely poetic sensibility; elsewhere, Touré shoots and stages his scenes with routine, if muscular, efficiency. Considering the film’s dedication to the scores of Senegalese refugees who have died making similarly clandestine voyages to Europe, it seems mean-spirited to call the film predictable, but there simply isn’t much juice in the early sequences in which ace fisherman Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye) agonizes over the decision to captain an outgoing pirogue. Despite the tender entreaties of his wife, we know that he is going to take the job, and also that things aren’t going to go well. In lieu of suspense, Touré simply stokes our dread.
He pays it off, too: The second half of La Pirogue is a harrowing slog, as the boat’s passengers suffer all manner of physical and psychological maladies even before the weather weighs in. The bobbing claustrophobia is familiar from any number of films – the Life of Pi springs to mind, as does Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat – and there is also a skillful delineation of the different religious sects on board. At times, it feels as if the pirogue has been transformed into a microcosm of Senegalese society, which plays out in the shabby treatment of the lone female traveller – a stowaway (Mame Astou Diallo) whose mere presence is a catalyst for conflict.
The acting is generally strong, but, with the exception of Baye Laye, none of the characters is given much in the way of an interior life. Lansana (Laïty Fall), the voyage’s motor-mouthed organizer, starts out as a blusteringly villainous foil and never really develops much further – his hectoring soon grows nearly as exhausting for the audience as for the other people on board. Other passengers are even more thinly drawn – for example, an older man who has brought along a chicken as a companion. In lieu of well-defined people, we get blurry sketches.
La Pirogue is an impressive physical production, and it has been made with purpose: Touré is trying to simultaneously pay tribute to those who have risked so much to leave home while providing some sense of the conditions that would make them want to escape in the first place. And yet for all its technical skill and good intentions, the film doesn’t quite have enough dramatic momentum to push it over the top. Instead, it drifts along to an ending whose calculated ambivalence makes it feel like a forgone conclusion.