Opening with a highly ritualized Senegalese village wrestling match, The Pirogue immediately announces its intentions to ground its fictionalized narrative in the specifics of West African life. The principal reality of that life proves to be the grinding poverty that leads roughly 30 villagers to embark on a dangerous ocean voyage to Europe aboard a barely seaworthy vessel (the pirogue of the title). Director Moussa Touré follows his diverse bunch as they face the twin perils of unforgiving seas and internal conflict, much of the latter brought on by the differing national and ethnic makeup of the group. In doing so, the filmmaker proves himself a shrewd, quick sketch artist, mapping out a half-dozen vivid personalities in the movie's first half before putting them through their paces in the second. Given the film's neo-neorealist imperative, the real achievement here is affecting detail within an observational approach. For all the tense interpersonal conflicts and the inevitable, if thrilling, stormy-seas set piece, what proves most striking are the exactly rendered little moments: a husband and wife lovingly rubbing each other's faces before parting, the people from a doomed ship swimming desperately for help in a receding background, a perfectly framed concluding scene that captures all the pathos and uncertainty of a premature homecoming.
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