Music relegated to a minor role
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Jan 20, 2012
It's a little strange, in a movie about an American ethnomusicologist's love affair with Pygmy music - a movie whose very name, "Oka!," means "listen" - that there's not a whole lot of music.
There's some, just enough to show you why the main character - based on real-life ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno, who has lived among and recorded the Bayaka Pygmies of Central Africa since the 1980s - is so obsessed with it. But most of the film, which is characterized by a desultory energy that's both mildly refreshing and mildly annoying, is devoted to pretty visuals: shots of picturesque nature, and scenes of Pygmies hunting, dancing or just sitting around shooting the breeze.
It's a pleasant, if slow-moving, trip down a lazy river.
Not literally, of course. Sarno's stand-in, Larry Whitman - played by British actor Kris Marshall, who was the randy but geeky caterer in "Love Actually" - gets around the village of Yandombe and its surrounding forests mainly by bus, bicycle and on foot, as he searches for a kind of Pygmy horn called a molimo, whose music he has heard of, but never actually heard. Marshall brings a scruffy likability to the role, though as an actor he's a tiny bit stiff.
Subtle background tension is provided by subplots concerning deforestation, conflict between the Bayaka and their Bantu neighbors and attempts by an officious local mayor (Isaach De Bankole) to modernize a people who don't necessarily want to be modernized.
Directed by Lavinia Currier ("Passion in the Desert"), who wrote the screenplay with Sarno and Suzanne Stroh, "Oka!" never picks up much steam with any of these plot devices. The most interesting sideline - which has to do with a budding romance between Larry and the chief's granddaughter, Makombe (Mbombi) - is handled in an almost offhand manner.
That said, "Oka!" is not without its folksy charms, even if most of them involve things that you look at, rather than listen to.
Contains nonsexual nudity and brief, mild obscenity. In English, French, Sango and Akka with English subtitles.