Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Film Review #106: Billo: il Grand Dakhaar
Director: Laura Muscardin
Cast: Thierno Thiam, Susy Laude, Paul D’Nour

This is a marvelous film about double lives. Of course, it’s always been possible to see that we contain whole multitudes through the figure of the immigrant, who crosses cultures and writes a new destiny. You can still see that grand idea in the very images that open Billo, a film about Senegalese-born Thierno Thiam, a real-life Hip-Hop fashion designer with his own brand label based in Rome. The movie starts with the night Thierno leaves Africa. There’s a fire on a vast, dark beach where he waits for a very small boat. Reflections of those flames fill his eyes and his eyes fill the screen. Then, a pale dawn sky above another beach and, suddenly, Thierno’s head, rising from his prayers, fills the horizon.

Part of the immigrant story’s grandeur was sailing forth and never returning, never looking back. Of course in countless ways this isn’t true, but it’s a notion we favor in the United States with our hunger for shedding the past and starting from scratch. Billo is all about looking backward in the midst of reinvention – about what director Laura Muscardin says she learned is common, if largely undiscussed, at least among Senegalese seeking work in Italy and the rest of Europe. Here, Thierno finds himself with two families because he loves two women, one whom he has known since childhood (Fatou, played by Carmen De Santos) and the other the younger sister of an Italian friend (Laura, played by Susy Laude), and he is unwilling to relinquish either one.

One of the marvelous things about Billo is that you can dip into this film nearly anywhere and find some echo of the doubling of Thierno’s loves and identity, so thoroughly does the idea permeate the film’s style and so carefully has the story been constructed. So in this amended life Thierno plays himself. Billo itself is a name Thierno makes up for himself outside a Roman disco and gives a woman he doesn’t trust with his real name. Good hunch, since later she stalks him, hilariously clad in leopard-spots but doing him real injury. In a film about a fashion designer, there is meticulous attention to clothing. Thierno’s attire changes gradually, the addition of baseball caps and Western shirts tracking his negotiation of a new culture in quite subtle ways scene to scene, and the colors found in Senegal – the turquoise, white and ochre of his teacher’s courtyard wall and his mother’s clothing – repeat later in Laura’s choice of clothing too. Thierno’s craft, with everything it might imply metaphorically, is shot with great respect, close up attention and real visual beauty.

Doubling underpins many of the film’s comic aspects, for example the gay couple Paolo and Paolo (Marco Bonini and Paolo Gasparini), who first appear by almost colliding from opposite sides of the frame as they rush to answer their doorbell. “At last, a man who is thoughtful!” exclaims the first Paolo as he sees the armful of flowers Thierno has brought to the party given by their roommate, Pap (Paul D’Nour), a sort of big brother to Theirno who acts as bridge between cultures. Then each of the two mothers – Thierno’s mother Diara (Daba Soumarè) and Paolo and Laura’s mother (Luisa De Santis) – has her stereotypes of life on the other continent. At a family dinner, Laura’s mother asks Thierno whether he misses the animals in the jungle, while Diara focuses on warnings about the evil allure of white women.

What develops is an environment that lends richness and resonance to clean, naturalistic performances, some by non-professionals. In mirroring scenes, both Fatou and Laura confront Thierno as he’s packing his suitcase for the other continent, demanding to go with him and failing to move him. In the wake of learning Thierno’s married Fatou from Pap and rashly announcing it, Paolo 1 has hair-raising back-to-back arguments, first with his sister (“How dare you! Thierno must tell me, and I decide if I want to know!”), then with his mother, who slaps her son in the face and rearranges his notion of tolerance.

Then there is the placement of memories. A key such recollection is deceptively simple. Not quite midway through the film, at a difficult point in his early days in Rome, Thierno recalls sitting at his family’s outdoor hearth back in the village of Mballing one night with his mother, Diara. She was doing the supper dishes next to a roaring fire – we know it's like the one that blazed on the beach the night he left – while Thierno was performing a little of the nominal help that mothers the world over know is the excuse to raise some difficult subject. “What’s up?” she asks. “What are you doing here? You’ve never washed the dishes.”

“I want to go to Italy,” he says. He has been secretly planning this for a dozen years or so, since he asked his mother whether he could overcome their social standing and marry Fatou if he became rich. Applying himself diligently in apprenticeship with the village tailor whose Italian fashion magazines he swipes, Thierno knew even then how this could happen. Thierno has loved Fatou since he passed her in the street. In fact, emblematic of their whole relationship, their first interaction occurs as he looks back over his shoulder at her and she looks after him.

“Italy,” answers his mother, looking at him suddenly in the firelight, her voice not loud but going up on the first syllable. Half question, half muted exclamation, her inflection packs this single word with astonishment at his outlandish idea and enough restraint that, with luck, he’ll hear an encouraging curiosity and tell her more. But pretty soon she’s asking Thierno if he wants to be like his father (she woke up one day and he’d disappeared), insisting she never liked his cousin with the same name (who can arrange smuggled passage), pleading, “Our destiny is written.”

A lesser film would tell Thierno’s story chronologically, so this scene about seeking what’s above one’s place would occur earlier and its impact subside into cliché. Instead, a lighting designer might almost have put this scene where it is, illuminating what comes before (Thierno’s stint in jail, mistaken for a terrorist by a nervous, harassing justice system and his fight with Pap over whether to embark on some shady dealings) and what follows – a long look in the mirror and a new job.

The film’s structure, with alternating segments set in one country and then the other, gives us first one side and then the other of Thierno’s double life. There are almost two dozen such segments, give or take, depending on whether you count several obvious, very brief flashbacks. These chunks of narrative work back and forth in time. Besides just providing back story, new segments answer questions raised by the previous one and insert reversals or complications such as engagement agreements and pregnancies. Gradually Thierno’s past pulls even with his Roman present and, increasingly, transitions between Senegal and Italy happen in real time – over cell phones and on planes and buses – rather than in memory. Destiny is rather more provisional that either Diara or her son have imagined. And if he ever leaves his day job, Thierno Thiam could have a future on-screen.

Billo: il Grand Dakhaar
screens on Monday, June 11, at 2:00 and 6:15 p.m. at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, part of “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema.” Tickets at

This review appeared in on 6/5/07. Find the accompanying interview with Laura Muscardin at