Nigerian director Kunye Afolayan explores grief and its manifestations in his latest film, Roti. A husband and wife have their son stripped away from them by death in a manner that seems cruelly foreshadowed by the gods. The mother, Diane (Kate Henshaw) has suffered a slew of miscarriages and still births over the course of a decade. The price she paid for her only son, Roti, was her womb. He is to be the last child she has.
The film opens in Diane’s nightmare, scored to the shrill cries of her departed babies. We get the sense her nightmare is creeping into reality as we hear the endless cries of Roti. Something is bothering the boy. He appears distant, isn’t eating well and eventually, we learn he has some heart-related ailments. A couple of hospital visits later, interspaced with some fleeting moments of relief and joy, the nightmare is firmly anchored in reality. Diane and her husband, Kabir (Afolayan) are left inconsolable. Their only respite may be the fact they may never feel this kind of loss and pain again.
As Diane is grieving, Kabir’s mother comes with some words of encouragement – her lost son will come back to her one way or the other. It’s a small seed of reincarnation inadvertently planted that sprouts like Jack’s magic beans one afternoon a four years after the death of Roti. Diane is driving through town when she spots a young boy walking home from school who looks just like her son did when he died. Is this all happening inside her head? It’s a question I asked myself. A path that sunk its teeth into the psychosomatic possibilities may have been more intriguing but Kabir is called in to set eyes on the boy and we learn this child, Juwon, is pretty much a doppelganger.
Nonetheless, a switch is flipped in Diane’s head and she becomes obsessed with this child. She basically starts to stalk him. Watching her milks a certain discomfort that makes the film richer. As the characters become more at ease with this dynamic, the camera seems to observe them with a heavier disquiet. It’ akin to watching a bubble float up in the air. You expect it to burst after few seconds. But it goes on and on and it starts to become an itch. And then it finally bursts and it starts to feel like order has been restored.
The problem is Diane seems to find her easement within this bubble. It shields her from the sorrow of the real world. She seems to see an iron fortress were the rest of us, including Kabir see thin walls of whatever bubbles are made off. Going the route of reincarnation seems like an unconventional way for exploring grief but works in parts, because of the way Henshaw is able to project the mental strain of Diane’s loss. It’s a fine showing from the actress whose eyes, in the best moments, serve as the doorway to a world of pain and mania.
You could question the clunkiness of the film’s script or the intrusive score and sound track. The narration given by Kabir, we could have done without. Roti also loses tact and lacks a certain deftness as the denouement nears and visuals start to tell less and less of the story. A sense of perspective is lost as Afolayan seems to forget who was holding this film together. Critical moments in the final act happen off screen and I was left wondering if the production run out of time and ideas or there was some impatience or just an inability to execute.
Flaws notwithstanding, we never doubt Diane’s motivation and the pain it stems from as Henshaw does a tonne of the emotional heavy lifting. It’s never clear whether Diane has a job or is a house wife. Kabir is more defined in this regard. However, his wife’s agency seems to be tied to her motherhood. Diane is broken when it is gone, sparked to life when there’s a chance her son is back to life to make her whole again. The cinematography is also noteworthy in the way it pivots of Diane’s tense and uneasy demeanor. Even before the death of their child, their home always seemed to be dimly lit by sunlight fighting its way through the curtains foreshadowing the sorrow to come.
Roti had me thinking of debbie tucker green’s 2015 film Second Coming, which’s strength lies in its open ended threads. The joy of Second Coming is succumbing to our inability to decipher the inexplicable happenings in it. Roti would have done well to lean towards the inexplicable instead of trying to be a tidy domestic drama. The idea of reincarnation provides the adequate launching pad but Afolayan opts to stay in the lane of logic. This means Roti never looks like it could rise above the marker of “just fine” and “functional drama”.