It's unfortunate the way that the sub-Saharan African continent gets all kind lumped together, and so we have people talking about "Africa this" or "Africa that" without any regard to the 46 countries that make up the continent. At its worst extreme, this results in a sort of First World inability to conceive of African politics at all, and we get genocide and revolution and genocide. At the other extreme, we get things like white film buffs who go to see "the African film" at film festivals because he (I mean, I'm theoretically assuming that our theoretical film buff is a "he") likes "African films," ignoring that the continent is something like three times the size of the US.

That intro honestly doesn't have anything much to do with anything, but first-time director and co-writer Salif Traoré's Faro, Goddess of the Waters, a co-production between Mali, France, Canada, Burkina Faso and Germany that I saw because it was "the African film," doesn't really give one an awful lot to go on. It just sort of is a movie. You know, the kind where you leave the theater and think "I just saw a movie," because there honestly isn't much else to think.

Here is what happens, broadly: Zanga (Fily Traoré, who I assume is related somehow to the director) is returning to the backwater village in Mali where he was born and raised, before traveling to the city for his education. A bastard son, Zan is already treated with some tiny amount of derision that turns into outright loathing when he suggests that Faro, the river goddess that the villagers look to as the source of their prosperity, maybe probably doesn't actually exist.

Not much better off is Penda (Djénéba Koné), the sweetheart of the chief's son, daughter of the resident shit-stirring anti-patriarchalist, and generally odd and slightly crazy person, viewed as being cursed by Faro, and the source of the town's recent fishing problems - problems which will surely be solved by sacrificing Zan.

"Hey, that's not logical!" you point out. Indeed no. That's in fact much the point of Faro, the tension between the traditional animism of rural Africa, and the (slowly) increasing levels of education and training. Zan and Penda, and a couple other misfits, are all either rationalists at the start of the film, or they begin to embrace rationalism as it moves along. And they are the protagonists, so far as that goes, but the film isn't really interested in a big heroes and villains showdown; the many villagers whose belief in Faro is too ingrained to shake and who persecute Zan et al are just as human and well-drawn. It's a film without answers, just questions about what is happening to Africa, and whether or not the continent can survive.

Which is well and good, for sure; but it's so extremely graceless about how it presents that theme. The closest thing to metaphor is that Zan, trained as an engineer, wants to build canals and such things, tapping the river; it's the forces of modernisation developing over the traditional ways of life, do you get it? And most of the film isn't nearly that subtle. It mostly just props up Zan here, a villager there, and they talk about how Zan with his big city ways is no longer a good fit for the village.

And that's pretty much that.

To a certain small degree, it works as a study of the dynamic of a town; to a slightly larger degree, it works as an exercise in landscape cinematography (the opening and closing shots, both pans over the river, are beautiful, hypnotic, and the best part of the film). But there's just not a whole lot of anything to it. And I think that I shall not belabor that any more.