Directed by Moussa Touré
Matter-of-fact and a bit flat-footed, this Senegalese film concerns the incalculable risk taken on by the West African migrating to Europe—he must drain his savings to buy passage to Spain’s Canary Islands, a perilous days-long journey made over open water in a de facto skiff, all for prospects that are far from certain. The movie begins in a coastal town outside of Dakar, where the waters have been overfished, and knowledge of Europe’s own financial crisis hasn’t yet tarnished its status as the destination-of-choice for those seeking a more prosperous life. At the outset, though, only one character seems to have taken full stock of the dangers of illegal immigration: dignified family man Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye), who agrees to be the title vessel’s captain only after negotiating an up-front payment that’s too large to refuse. Alongside him on board are his iPhone-flaunting younger brother; an exuberant friend who harbors sadly vague dreams of becoming a soccer star abroad; and 28 other characters, all men save for a single female stowaway who attracts their attention once the boat takes to sea.
Director Moussa Touré nicely breaks down the differences dividing the passengers (both Senegalese and Guineans, of different ethnic and religious affiliations), but the roster of characters proves too unwieldy for a human drama scaled to the individual, especially one that’s scarcely longer than 80 minutes. This becomes particularly clear as Baye and his human cargo encounter trouble, forcing each character to face the massive gamble he’s taken by getting on the boat in the first place. They pass a similar boat that’s stranded at sea, its passengers calling desperately for help, before their own backup engine gives out in the aftermath of a brutal nighttime storm (a standout sequence that shows the boat’s vulnerability to the elements). Even as the ocean’s currents are all that’s nudging the rigged-up craft along, The Pirogue continues to progress with a hard linearity, en route to a conclusion that forgoes issue-based hand-wringing in favor of a kind of shattering calm. The final scenes confirm that Touré has good instincts as a filmmaker—if only he had gotten hold of a more manageable scenario.
Opens January 23