Guns, gold bars, drug lords, military coups, folk heroes, tall tales, and ghost stories. Is there a 2021 film that gives more bang for the buck than Jean Luc Herbulot’s superb “Saloum”?
This is not a case of “too much” movie, where the director and screenwriter thoughtlessly stuff as many ingredients into the pot as they can and hope the concoction doesn’t boil over. No one likes a mess on a hot stovetop. Happily, Herbulot knows what he’s cooking and how to treat his varied elements. His secret weapon is harmony, the key to any good genre stew, and real-world history aside, “Saloum” is very much the product of a diverse array of genre traditions: Western and action movies, and horror especially.
The film opens in the middle of the 2003 Guinea-Bissau coup d’état, which we’ll gently describe as a “regime change” spearheaded by the nation’s military. Herbulot’s telling reframes events as somewhat less than bloodless; his protagonists, Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah), and Minuit (Mentor Ba), the mercenary trio known as Bangui’s Hyenas, have seized an opportunity to make a score and go about a-butchering soldiers in ruined city streets. Their target is a drug lord, Felix (Renaud Farah), plus his bricks of gold, smuggled out of the chaos to safety by the Hyenas. But when the getaway plane takes a bullet, they’re forced to land by the Sine-Saloum Delta river and find shelter at a nearby vacation retreat run by the smiling, magnanimous Omar (Bruno Henry).
Omar’s the host with the most. All the same, there’s something off about not only him but the encampment and the surrounding region. Chaka, Rafa, and Minuit determine to get the hell out as quickly as they can, but their best-laid plans have already crashed and burned, so naturally, their improvised plans don’t fare any better. That’s as much, maybe more, as you’ll want to know going into “Saloum.” Herbulot paces the picture like he’s in a mad rush to a vague finish line, but the filmmaking never actually feels hurried thanks to his sense of economy. Every single minute of “Saloum” counts. There’s no waste here, no fat, not a moment where Herbulot fumbles in the dark, and that’s saying something: “Saloum” is very dark, a revenge story rooted in a country built on corpses and atrocities dating back centuries, even beyond.
We don’t watch horror movies for a good, long snuggle, of course, so darkness is part of the pleasure. But “Saloum”s darkness is sourced from horror as well as history. It would make an interesting double feature with, say, “Beasts of No Nation,” though Herbulot wears such a smorgasbord of influences on his sleeve that if you paired “Saloum” with any Agatha Christie adaptation, they’d go together like peanut butter and strawberry jam. The camp’s atmosphere is made up of paranoia and distrust. Everyone’s onto each other, whether deaf Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), one of Omar’s guests, or Souleymane (Ndiaga Mbow), the police chief, whose presence is a most unwelcome surprise for the Hyenas. Even Rafa and Minuit suspect Chaka of keeping secrets from them, though they can’t possibly guess what.
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