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Out of Africa

Pièces d'identité is a comedy with sadness at its core

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I don't know that Zaire-born writer-director Mweze Ngangura, when he created the comedy Pièces d'identité, took any cues from the Eddie Murphy vehicle Coming to America, but a certain resemblance exists.

The premise is again tradition-bound African royalty coming to a modern metropolis and experiencing life more or less incognito. In 1958, tribal leader King Mani Kongo of Bakongo made a goodwill visit to Belgium as one of the dynamic, optimistic new leaders of an independent black republic. The script jumps ahead 40 years, after several Bakongolese economic collapses and violent revolutions. The aged, polygamous King Mani Kongo decides to once again don his tribe's precious fetishes and voyage abroad in splendor to Brussels, this time to look up his long-lost daughter Mwana, whom he sent to Europe when things turned bloody at home. By now, he reasons, Mwana should have earned her medical degree and can return to serve the nation.

But the aloof king is disconnected from current events, in more ways than one. Mwana fled her convent school ages ago and never received the many letters her father sent; she's now a cabaret dancer in a bar in the African-immigrant quarter of Brussels. Expecting to be met by a diplomatic delegation like he was in 1958, Mani Kongo is instead robbed and lands on the streets homeless, sharing the hospitality offered by a low-caste mulatto cab driver. While his valuable fetishes wind up attracting all kinds of greedy attention, Mani Kongo searches the streets diligently for Mwana. She keeps missing him by the narrowest of margins.

The humor translates well. Viewers who have come to expect African cinema to be slow-moving might find this positively giddy, even though at its heart, the comedy of errors is still a lament for the high expectations of all those black "free states" that remain mired in poverty, troglodyte Marxism, uprisings and corruption.

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