A teen's lament

A hushed and powerful Rwandan heartbreaker

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Neorealism is never an easy sell. American filmgoers are unaccustomed to the lived-in everydayness of the genre, the focus on small gestures and improvisation. And yet, with the right amount of patience and attentiveness, films that trade in naturalism and the ordinary rhythms of life can be both transporting and profound.

With Lee Isaac Chung's Munyurangabo, handheld camerawork and patient visual framing produces a rare and affecting character intimacy that gets under your skin. Though there is little in the way of dramatic dialogue (by Hollywood standards), you really feel like you know and understand the film's two teenage Rwandans, Munyurangabo (Jeff Rutagengwa) and Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye). They are journeying together to Munyurangabo's village, where they intend to exact revenge on the man who murdered his father during the Rwandan genocide. Along the way, the youths stop to visit Sangwa's family, where a fight with his belligerent father drove Sangwa away three years earlier. Over the course of two days, ethnic friction and familial longing start to unravel the teens' friendship. 

Though to some, Munyurangabo's pace will feel glacial, Chung and his indigenous actors let the characters' backgrounds, struggles and personalities trickle out honestly. Deep kinship, jealousy, tenderness and resentment simultaneously fuel and thwart the teens' desire to find reconciliation. Each desperately seeks connection, but encounters only estrangement — from family, from country and even from each other. It's a quietly heartbreaking movie that makes clear the recent past that haunts every moment of Rwanda's present.

Remarkably, Chung, a Korean-American who grew up in rural Arkansas, shot the movie in 11 days with local nonprofessional actors. It is the first film in the Kinyarwanda language. Nevertheless, his gorgeous compositions, remarkable restraint and subtle use of metaphor — a crumbling house, the way characters abandon one another in the frame — show that this is a filmmaker who understands the lyrical possibilities of film. Even Munyurangabo's final confrontation with his father's killer is handled with understated perfection, capturing the torturous ambivalence of the personal and political.

For all the high-stakes drama displayed in such films as Hotel Rwanda, it's Munyurangabo that ultimately feels more authentic and meaningful. And in answer to those show-stopping monologues that earn starring actors Oscar nominations, Chung introduces Munyurangabo to a cantina poet near the film's end, who delivers a raw lament for his country's past and an angry appeal to tend to its future. It's the movie's sole moment of messaging — innocence can never be regained, reconciliation requires commitment — and even then it offers no simplistic moral to take away. Just the awful realization that, even 16 years later, the people of Rwanda are still searching for a way to heal.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. on Friday Feb. 12, and 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 13-14.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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