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Review: 'Elza' - Touching Tale On Caribbean's Complex Racial Prejudices, Family & Forgiveness (Opens This Week)

by Vanessa Martinez
November 30, 2012 11:40 AM
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Another Diasporic film opening in limited release this week, at the new MIST Harlem Cinemas in NYC; a film that we also highly recommend, so if you're in NYC, see it while you can, before it leaves.

ELZA (Le Bonheur d’Elza “Elza’s Happiness”), the first narrative film by Mariette Montpierre and the first directing effort ever by a Guadeloupean, was inspired by Montpierre’s personal accounts of searching for her biological father back in her native West Indies.

Elza, living in Paris with her mother Bernadette (played by director Montpierre) is celebrating completing her Master’s degree. But the successful young woman (played by the lovely Stana Roumillac), has never come to terms with her sense of identity. Her biological father, whom she barely remembers, is back in her hometown of Guadeloupe tending to another family. He abandoned them when Elza was a young child.

An enraged mother threatens Elza not to leave, but the willful free-spirit embarks on her journey.

A charming and vivacious Elza basks in Guadeloupe’s beaches and scenery. Hopeful and optimistic, she travels in her motorcycle through the succulent landscapes of the island. I loved the sequential images: a Black woman wearing her natural hair with no helmet (don’t try this at home) riding her motorcycle, exuding subtle sensuality, passionate about life, free and unburdened.

But Perhaps Elza is too optimistic. She tracks her father down; Mr. Desiré (Vincent Byrd Le Sage) is a man of mixed race – straight hair and dark olive complexion. He’s powerful, wealthy and a well-known figure in her hometown. She follows him as he meets up with a Black mistress, and later to his home, which he shares with his fair skinned wife, and granddaughter Caroline (an adorable Eva Constant).

Eliza lies to the family's new nanny, another Black woman, on her first day by telling her the owner has gone out of town. Unbeknownst of her ties to the man of the house, she infiltrates their home and becomes the caretaker of her father's granddaughter (her niece). She earns the trust of Mr. Desiré and his wife, but most of all, of their non-responsive granddaughter, who has formed a strong bond with Elza.

Even though things are going fairly well, Eliza's goal of reacquainting with her father is nowhere near being accomplished. He has two other daughters from his current marriage. The youngest, and her niece's mother, is in a mental facility. The father of her child, Jean-Luc (Teddy Doloir) was rejected by her parents; he was deemed too "dark/black" to join the family. And Mr. Desiré's oldest daughter, an ill-tempered woman, is in a passion-less marriage with a lascivious man who begins to lust after Elza.

She also realizes the family's deep-seated prejudice against Blacks. The young granddaughter is not allowed to see her father Jean-Luc. In one scene, Jean-Luc shows up at their doorstep to deliver presents for his daughter. Eliza watches as Mrs. Desire yells at him not to come back. She then gives the wrapped presents to Eliza to put in the garbage.

Yet, Eliza’s memories of the seemingly cold-hearted Mr. Desire embracing her as a child still hunt her. She sees the prejudice and feels displaced, but she also knows that the daughters he raised with his current wife aren’t happy and don’t share a close bond with their father either. She still yearns for his love and attention. She feels she deserves it. She must somehow win him over. And, although deep inside one may root for her; the most sensible alternative is to forget everything about this man and his dysfunctional family, and walk away with your pride and dignity in tact.

Yet Eliza is stubborn; her father’s acceptance becomes her obsession. Once the narrative unfolds and Mr. Desire finds out the truth about Elza, a truth he has been suspecting for quite a while, he’s in denial and can’t face her. “Please look at me,” Eliza cries in the climactic scene, to which Mr. Desire replies with his back to her, “With your kinky hair, you can’t be my daughter.”

Montpierre develops a narrative that shows the complexities of Caribbean racial prejudices, despite centuries of miscegenation due to French-European colonialism in Guadeloupe. Racism takes a form similar to what’s considered “Colorism” in the states, although more severe. There's a hierarchy based on skin tone and hair texture. Unfortunately for many “higher-class” Caribbean people, the colonially racist and paternalistic mentality persists: Black women seen as inferior – either mistresses/sexual objects or nannies. It’s a hypocritical, absurd notion, especially looking at Mr. Desire’s and his other daughters’ dark olive skin tones, his love-affair with his Black mistress and his own obviously mixed granddaughter.

Filmmaker Montpierre was optimistic in real life of meeting her biological father; however, she wanted a more positive outcome in her film than in the one in her true story. Her father died a year after meeting him, and it wasn’t the close relationship she had hoped for. Yet, in real life, her father’s family embraced her, and to this day, they have supported her and her film. Montpierre hoped to reach out to fatherless women in Elza’s situation looking to find closure. In the process, they may also find forgiveness, acceptance and a new family.

The only criticism I, and certainly others, would have is that the romanticized ending may come across as simplistic. It’s hard to reconcile the prejudices against Elza, plus her father’s unethical ways. Yet, it works here due to the beautiful, affecting performances, especially by the arresting Roumillac as Elza and Le Sage as her father; the latter’s transformation is superb as he sheds his layers and evokes genuine sentimentality.

The cast, consisting of mostly non-professional actors deliver believable performances. There’s an air of feminine energy throughout the film, brought on by the picturesque scenery, Elza’s allure due to her tenacity, strength and vulnerability, the film’s score – a mixture of sensual ballads and vibrant beats - and the film’s rich emotional energy.

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  • Xavier | December 4, 2012 10:25 AMReply

    I really appreciate this review. I saw a screening of the film at the new MIST space in Harlem last week. The filmmaker and lead actress were present. Although I appreciated the filmmaking (and your review's point of view and observations), I was disappointed in the filmmaker's unwillingness to discuss how colorism and caste impacted her film. When asked the question she answered by discussing her struggles with her hair. I attended the screening with a friend (also of Caribbean descent) who was anxious to hear the filmmaker discuss the history of color and colonialism in Guadelope as well as her story. Your review is significant because you're actually pointing out the cultural and social aspects of the film that most of us saw yet the filmmaker seemed to suggest were not her intentions.

  • Inquisitor | December 12, 2012 1:19 PM

    Expecting a filmmaker to discuss certain issues is one thing. But attacking or trying to push a director into a corner to talk about issues within a film is disrespectful. You brought your concerns here which is the more mature thing to do. But the opposite has been done and it's disrespectful. Some filmmakers are not going to want to talk about certain issues. Their statements are on the screen. Lower your expectations.

  • Xavier | December 7, 2012 11:43 PM

    Inquistitor - I don't disagree that "hairism" is a form of racism. However, the filmmaker only discussed her hair journeys and never answered the question about how caste and color played into the film's environment. Disrespectful? I'm not sure what inspired you to say that. Expecting a filmmaker to discuss caste and color in a film built around caste and color is disrespectful? Nowadays audiences (theater, film, etc) want to engage in dialogue during post-show. It builds community and improves audience appreciation. I certainly understand how filmmaking works, but my point is about content and the artist's responsibility for content. I know dozens of filmmakers and other storytellers who also believe it's important to have some responsibility for content. If her film was simply about a girl who travels to Guadalupe for romance, etc, I wouldn't be inspired to seek out caste and color, necessarily. However, this film is clearly centered around a wealthy fair-skinned and/or mixed-race family in the Caribbean and class and color play a significant part. A few of the characters mention class and color. It seems logical that an audience would want to engage in a discussion about these things and they would expect the filmmaker to be an authority on the matters or, at least, resourceful. So yes, it was disappointing when the filmmaker wasn't able to answer direct questions about the very issues in her story. Without context, the film has a danger of being categorized as one of those tabloid class- and color-drivern historical telenovelas on Telemundo.

  • Inquisitor | December 4, 2012 11:29 AM

    Well hairism is a branch of colorism which is a branch of racism. Maybe she personally was attacked more for her coil then her complexion. Maybe it wasn't her intention to address specific aspects within her film, but by nature because they are very related all stemming form racism they were bound to come to surface. You can be disappointed, but just remember a filmmaker's job is to make a great film. If it stirs up compelling dialogue, great! But she doesn't need to assist any conversation or have the same passion for ALL of the cultural implications that a powerful film may present by default. If this film is unforgettable, then the director did her job. Everything else is extra and not an obligation. I saw this in a theater and the audience did the same thing almost forcing her to speak about certain things as if she were an expert. Disrespectful.

  • deecreative | December 1, 2012 7:09 PMReply

    Hi Vanessa,
    Any word of this being released on VOD, i.e. itunes?

  • Vanessa Martinez | December 2, 2012 3:45 PM

    Nope, not yet. The film opened in theater at MIST in Harlem this past Friday.

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