VARIETY September, 5 2019 | Mark Keizer
A straightforward adaptation of Scholastique Mukasonga’s 2012 novel that effectively details the ethnic tensions that would lead to the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Rwanda-born writer Scholastique Mukasonga’s 2012 novel “Notre-Dame du Nil” is not specifically about the 1994 Rwandan genocide but rather how class division, colonialism and economic disparity created a toxic stew of resentment and prejudice that made the genocide possible. By using a Rwandan all-girls Catholic boarding school as her microcosm, she lays out how the seeds of ethnic hatred were planted, nurtured and encouraged to blossom. Still, any adaptation of Mukasonga’s book holds the promise of being that long-awaited great film about the country’s ethnic strife and how it exploded into a historic bloodbath that saw members of Rwanda’s Hutu majority slaughter 800,000 of their countrymen, mostly members of the Tutsi minority, in only three months.
If “Our Lady of the Nile” is ultimately not the definitive telling of the genocide, it is something equally valuable: the tragedy’s illuminative prequel, a straightforward origin story faithfully adapted from an essential text. For potential North American distributors, it’s a roll of the dice for this film that premiered at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival. Foreign moviegoers who mostly know this far-away horror from 2004’s Oscar-nominated “Hotel Rwanda” should nevertheless appreciate the striking sense of authenticity of this never-too-late refresher on the genocide’s underpinnings. Those with unfair expectations of Hollywood-sized histrionics and fist-shaking displays of indignity will come away deservedly disappointed.
Mukasonga, who lost 27 family members, including her mother, in the genocide, attended a Rwandan lycée much like the one depicted in her novel. In his film adaptation, Afghan-born director and co-screenwriter Atiq Rahimi (“The Patience Stone”) drops us right in the middle of a busy 1973 at Notre-Dame du Nil, and leaves us to get a handle on things. The girls, in their matching white blouses and butterscotch-colored pants, are mostly from rich Hutu families. The school enforces a 10% cap on Tutsi student admissions, although some Tutsis are allowed to attend the school in excess of the quota, much to the annoyance of some Hutu girls. The school is considered a top-flight institution of “good Christians” where the girls are groomed to become the “country’s female elite.” Their quotidian tasks include planting vegetables, straightening out the archives and cleaning the statue of the Virgin Mary that rests on a hill overlooking the river.
Rahimi and Ramata Sy’s screenplay adaptation is an honorable and mostly successful attempt to cover as much social, cultural and historical ground as possible. The cruel treatment of unmarried pregnant girls, the continued reliance on witch doctors and the contradictory teachings of science and religion are covered to varying degrees of length and effectiveness to suggest Rwanda’s uneasy mix of pagan and modern cultures. This might leave less-informed viewers in a bit of a lurch, as with the character of Fontenaille (Pascal Greggory). A creepy European holdover who lives on a local plantation, Fontenaille is dedicated to ensuring the Tutsis regain their dignity in the belief they are aristocratic descendants of the black pharaohs. While the non-sexual motivations of this oddly drawn character are never quite believable, Fontenaille insists his only interest in Tutsi student Veronica (Clariella Bizimana) is sketching her.
Any story about demonizing The Other can’t help but remind us of the anti-immigrant sentiment currently roaring through Europe and the United States. Rahimi, however, doesn’t outwardly encourage the drawing of contemporary parallels and while that might deny the movie a ripped-from-the-headlines appeal, the root causes of the Rwandan genocide are so ill-served in film that he’s justified in allowing them to stand on their own. The main ethnic agitator here is Gloriosa (Albina Sydney Kirenga), a Hutu student who chafes at the Tutsi-looking nose on the Virgin Mary statue they’re always asked to clean. So with reluctant partner Modesta (Belinda Rubango Simbi), she climbs the shrine in the middle of the night to give it a “Rwandan nose, a majority nose.”
When they succeed only at ripping the nose off the statue before falling into the mud, Gloriosa invents a story of bravely fending off an attack by a Tutsi gang, which triggers the military to step in to protect the students. With her supposedly courageous exploits making the newspapers, Gloriosa’s bubbling Tutsi animosity explodes into a desire for a full-on ethnic purging of the school.
Rahimi coaxes fine performances from his actresses, many of whom are non-pros, while editor Hervé de Luze (Polanski’s “The Pianist” and Rahimi’s “The Patience Stone”) wisely resists the urge to cut the final act of bloodletting like an action thriller. Top marks go to cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, whose visuals are so lush you want to reach out and touch the leaves on the trees. When the story pauses to allow a group of girls to billow their white dresses and dance beneath the steel-gray sky, it’s not only a breathtaking moment; it makes you mourn for a beautiful, verdant land that’s destined to be the site of one modern history’s most barbaric mass slaughters.