Writing of Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” the French journalist Marjolaine Gout has described it as “a philosophical tale where Noah’s Ark metamorphoses into ‘The Raft of the Medusa.’” Géricault’s allegorical painting is rendered more literally in “The Pirogue,” Senegalese director Moussa Touré’s alarming depiction of a tragic attempt by 31 West African boat people to voyage to Spain via the Canary Islands in the eponymous uncovered craft.
An end title discloses that of the 30,000 immigrants that made the trip between 2005 and 2010, 5,000 perished. Ten thousand had died between 1989 and 2003. Boats bearing the mummified bodies of some Senegalese have shown up 3,000 miles away in Barbados.
Opening at Film Forum in New York on Wednesday, “The Pirogue” is Touré’s third feature. It acknowledges the sociopolitical influence of Senegal’s great novelist-director Ousmane Sembène by naming one of the boat people after him. Beginning with a vividly filmed wrestling match, a metaphor for the ethical and moral struggles the Senegalese face in deciding whether to adhere to their roots or attempt to Westernize, the movie is a little flat in the early part of the voyage, but becomes increasingly tense and claustrophobic.
The protagonist, Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye), is a skilled fisherman whose livelihood is imperiled because the Atlantic around Senegal has been overfished. He has repeatedly turned down the offer to helm the flimsy, uncovered boat, but takes the lucrative job to benefit his young family and because a naïve young friend has decided to make the trip. Totems of Western affluence like iPhones and iPods have penetrated the community and hold out the promise of a better life the Senegalese young will never have.
The travelers include the grifter (Laïty Fall) who organized the journey, a gifted soccer player, an aspiring musician, a man with one leg, and a single stowaway woman (Mame Astou Diallo), a mother of two whose husband was lost on a similar voyage. Initially, the trip goes well, though the differences between the ethnically and religiously mixed passengers – who include Toucouleurs, Wolofs, and Guinean Fulas – take their toll.
Having picked up a few desperate men who swam from a doomed boat that had lost its motor power and expended its water, the Pirogue is battered by a nocturnal storm. Of the three men lost, one goes overboard off the stern – a direct homage to the similarly heartrending sequence in Peter Weir’s “Master and Commander,” cited by Touré as a major influence.
It doesn’t give much away to say that the Pirogue eventually makes landfall, but not before dehydration and starvation have turned the gaily painted boat’s few survivors into a modern equivalent of Géricault’s writhing figures. This is presumably intentional since the Medusa had been carrying French colonial immigrants to Senegal. As that raft of madness symbolized the drifting French state in 1816, so the Pirogue represents Senegal, where 54 percent of the people live below the poverty line.