High-quality feature films have been produced in many places far from Hollywood - and as distant from each other as Iceland and Senegal, to mention just a couple of small countries where cinema has flourished. One of the latest to emerge, the African nation of Zaire, is currently getting attention for a musical film called ``La Vie est belle'' - or ``Life Is Rosy,'' as it's known in English-speaking countries.
``La Vie est belle'' was filmed mostly in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire, and it pulses with the rhythms of that city's life. From the evidence on the movie screen, Kinshasa is proudly African in everything from its bouncy music to the bright, lively colors of its clothing. Yet the West is making an impact there, too. People buy Western products - everything from toaster ovens to Mercedes-Benz automobiles - and young folks while away their evenings in loud disco nightclubs.
So it makes sense that ``La Vie est belle'' was made by African and European production companies (based in Zaire, Belgium, and France) and filmed by two directors: Ngangura Mweze from Zaire and Benoit Lamy from Belgium. Their movie is now finding audiences both in and out of Africa - it recently opened in Belgium and Canada - and it has won some prizes, too. Its female stars shared the award for best actress at the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily, and its male star, Papa Wemba, won a music award at a Belgian filmfest. The movie is now having its American premi`ere at the Film Forum in Manhattan.
Despite its international credentials, ``La Vie est belle'' revolves around a hero who embodies the look and sound of Zaire itself. Played by Papa Wemba, a hugely popular singing star there, he's a poor country boy named Kourou.
Like poor country boys in countless Hollywood movies, he dreams of being a great pop musician someday. So at the beginning of the story he hops on the back of a truck and heads for the big city - Kinshasa, which has about 4 million residents. Unfortunately, the truck hits a bad bump, and Kourou's only musical instrument goes overboard.
When he arrives in the city, people don't believe he is a musician, and there's no chance he'll get to play with the orchestra he loves. Nvuandu, the businessman who owns that orchestra, does give him a job, but it's as a servant in his house. Good times are over for Kourou before they even start.
Surprises await him, though. Although businessman Nvuandu is very rich, he doesn't have the thing he wants most in the world: a son. He goes to a sorcerer for advice, and the magician tells him to take a second wife, but not to consummate the marriage for a month. This delay gives Kourou time to fall in love with Kabibi, the unofficial new wife. And the end of the story is happy for everyone. Nvuandu falls back in love with his first wife, and Kourou ends up singing in Nvuandu's disco, after all. ``Life Is Rosy,'' just as the title says.
The most likable thing in ``La Vie est belle'' is Papa Wemba's energetic acting and singing. He's a sensation in Zaire, where young people reportedly walk, talk, and dress in Papa Wemba style, making him perhaps the most admired and imitated personality in the country. He has also attracted notice in Europe - a critic there compared him to Harry Belafonte - and this movie could make him still more famous on the international music scene.
And just as important, the movie has been filmed with a professionalism that would stand up in Hollywood and other movie capitals. The photography is sharp; the editing is crisp; the plot moves along at a vigorous pace.
``La Vie est belle'' isn't a major film, and its story isn't very memorable. But it puts Zaire firmly on the map as a promising movie country. And it reminds us once again that good filmmaking is no monopoly of a few large nations. It can emerge - and thrive - wherever the international language of cinema is understood.