By Vanessa Martinez | Shadow and Act November 9, 2011 at 5:14PM
Written and directed by Isaki Lacuesta, The Double Steps is a Spanish-Swiss production I profiled on the site after it won the top prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Barcelona, Spain over a month ago. The film was featured last month at the Chicago Film Festival. It’s currently in theaters across Spain, but it has yet to find distribution in the U.S.
The Double Steps tells a mystical and superstitious story, a mysterious blend of fiction and fact. The film centers on a legend involving real-life 20th century French writer/painter François Augiéras (1925-1971), whose spirit seems to have reincarnated in a West African villager in the northwest of Mali. It is said that while he was alive, Augiéras hid in a military bunker in the desert and painted all the walls. Before fleeing the site, he sealed the entrance with a boulder; in time, the secret location was buried in the sand by the wind.
The story revolves around the journey of "Abdullah Chambaa," played by newcomer Bokar Dembele, a soldier who claims to be Augiéras himself. He’s left behind by his army for refusing to partake in a part of the training (a finely crafted and intense sequence). Chambaa, virile and fearless, embodies Augiéras alter ego. Along with Chambaa, the story follows several West African villagers, all with one goal in mind: to find Auguieras hidden “treasure”
During his path, Chambaa joins other travelers, which include thieves and refugees in search of the hidden bunker; which is said to be close to sea. As the film progresses and our rebellious main character starts losing his wits, the more bizarre the experience becomes. Here’s where the film falters a bit; you start feeling disconnected to Chambaa and his motivations.
The film opts to narrate with mostly abstract elements and artistic contemplation. It has some captivating and amusing sequences, along with some breathtaking landscapes of Mali. It’s not a movie for everyone and definitely not a crowd pleaser. There are no heroes; it’s not a love story by any means. I was actually surprised by the lack of female presence throughout; in a few scenes, the characters engage in some questionable homosexual dialogue/behavior.
One of the best sequences is when Chambaa arrives into town and meets a young woman, a prostitute of a sweet natured disposition. They engage in a funny, flirtatious banter of sorts. You would think their interaction would veer into the romantic subplot of the film but such is not the case. I can’t help to have wanted to see a romance flourish but, alas, it just wasn’t that film.
There’s also a suggestion, although comical, to bestiality. Depending on your perception, this may be readily apparent or not (Aguiéras was said to be a misogynistic homosexual and also into bestiality).
Perhaps, prior knowledge of Aguieras written works would have shed light into some of the main character’s motivations and enhance your appreciation for the film.
The film also features real life Spanish painter Miguel Barceló, who plays himself and is shown working on several paintings. Although a minor role, he serves as the film’s artistic muse.
It’s hard to negatively criticize a film like this; its originality, art direction and spontaneous moments of hilarity make up for the lack of narrative value. However, the first half worked much better than the last; the intrigue wears off later in the film as the story meanders quite a bit (I must say, I was completely immersed the first 45 minutes). Still, the ending manages to unravel some interesting metaphors.
The Double Steps offers a slice of West African culture not commonly seen in cinema, especially in this peculiar and whimsical nature. Magnificently photographed, the film is certainly unconventional and lyrical; a poetic tale told through the grim realism of the ordinary lives of these villagers. The result is both strange and wondrous.