The centerpiece of the recent African Diaspora Festival, Genesis audaciously transposes chapters 23 to 37 of the first book of the Bible to Mali, 300 years after the great flood. Cheick Oumar Sissoko’s highly symbolic film centers on the war between clans led by two brothers, grizzled shepherd Jacob (Sotigui Kouyate, a veteran of Peter Brook’s theater company) and Esau (singer Salif Keita), whose birthright was stolen by Jacob—he’s first seen on a mountaintop, plotting revenge, surrounded by his fellow hunters. After a number of bloody deeds are committed on both sides, Jacob learns that his favorite son, Joseph, presumed dead and devoured by wild beasts, is in fact alive, well, and living in the land of the pharaohs. The two rival patriarchs finally make peace; then Jacob and his brethren descend into Egypt.
This French-Malian coproduction benefits from Lionel Cousin’s first-rate cinematography. The action is dominated by the enormous Hombori Tondo rock formation in the Sahel desert—it has something of the magical, timeless presence of Monument Valley in John Ford’s westerns. The script, by ex?theological student Jean-Louis Sagot Duvauroux, presents the Bible stories as a foreshadowing of ethnic clashes still prevalent today. Despite these interesting ambitions, Genesis doesn’t work. With 10 features and docs to his credit, Sissoko is no novice, yet most of the film is static, staged like an outdoor school play and without the emotional surge its big theme demands. Principal characters remain archetypes; most of the key events are described rather than dramatized. This does give you plenty of time to admire the eye-popping array of costumes and headdresses.