Once Upon a Time in Africa – Saloum (2022)

The influences of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino very clearly inform this modern African Western. Saloum is rooted in its spiritual and cultural energy and isn’t afraid to go for broke with its ambition. 

This is definitely a Pulp Fiction moment if there ever was one

Three mercenaries tasked with extracting a drug lord during a military coup in Guinea-Bissau are forced to hideout in a remote village along the Saloum river of Senegal. When they arrive, they begin to realize there is a lot more at play than they thought. 

I am going to have to sit down with Jean Luc Herbulot’s other work because I had a lot of fun with this one. I didn’t know what to expect from this film but the thematic Western elements are abundant. Revenge is a classic element in Westerns and that becomes the primary catalyst in this story, but there is also a very strong element of vigilante justice as well, or at least the idea that the individual with the gun can be more righteous than the institutions that surround them. The latter is more subtext but it’s important in the framing of the film’s characters. 

This is one of the many great shots captured by cinematographer Gregory Corandi

The story by Herbulot and Pamela Diop doesn’t try to disguise the fact that the lead characters are mercenaries. In fact, the three of them are dripping with style. They are introduced to the audience in the process of rescuing a drug dealer for money, but the context never exactly paints them as the bad guys and that is scratched away at more through the dialogue with some of the other characters at the Saloum camp. It is important to recognize the shades of gray that are present and how that is designed to challenge the audience. 

Yann Gael, Mentor Ba, and Roger Sallah give strong performances as that trio of mercenaries, Chaka, Minuit, and Rafa respectively. Despite what you may think of their characters, the script makes sure to instill a sense of brotherhood among the three of them and excels in the moments where there is pushback between them. Brothers often fight but ultimately love one another and, even as the circumstances become more untenable, their bond gives them purpose. That element of relationships forged in fire is another classic Western theme that surfaces here. 

It is obvious that this film wasn’t made with a sizable budget, but it squeezes a lot out of its presentation. Nobody is listed as a costume designer but that was one of my favorite parts of this film. Each of the main characters had a very distinct visual style and that goes a long way in making them memorable. I don’t see the filming locations disclosed either but the set design and decoration went a long way in telling this story as well. Visual storytelling is an important piece of filmmaking and Minsy Carrere and Mariam Lee Abounouom got every ounce of personality out of the sets and production design. 

This movie shifts gears quite a bit, going from a sort of militaristic feel at the outset to a much more personal and grounded story based on Senegal’s history of using child soldiers (which is part of the reason this film is set in 2003) and the story uses that history to pivot into its supernatural horror elements. 

Like I said there’s a lot going on and while the story was certainly crafted with some of the historical elements in mind, the ultimate goal of the film isn’t to leave the audience depressed which is why it changes course and has the heroes fighting something supernatural. 

The explanation for what exactly is going on with that situation gets a bit murky and maybe I need to rewatch it, but there’s something about a bargain struck with the spirits. Regardless, you mostly just need to know that something weird is going on and your attention is drawn to the action in the final third of the film. 

It is always nice to come across something like this that is bursting with creativity and soul and excels even with its limitations. As a point of comparison that drives home the Tarantino and Rodriguez note, this film reminded me quite a bit of From Dusk Till Dawn which is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. 

Recommendation: Fans of Quentin Tarantino will appreciate the storytelling style and the increasing level of intensity along the way, so see it for the performances and the story that keeps moving. 

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