‘On Becoming a Guinea Fowl’ Review: Trauma Clashes with Tradition in a Searing Zambian Drama

Decades of mediocre Sundance movies — and some very good ones, too — have conditioned us to expect certain things from culturally specific dramas about young people who return home from the big city and find themselves struggling to reconcile modern identity with family tradition. These characters invariably feel at odds with the heritage that forged them, only to discover something vital and profound about the past they were so quick to leave behind. At the end of the story, they return to their fast-paced lives in London or L.A. or wherever with a new sense of self-possession — one that reflects the grace and strength they’ve inherited from the generations who came before them.

Rungano Nyoni’s lucid and incandescently furious “On Becoming a Guinea Fowl” is a stiff middle finger to such wishful thinking. Set in a middle-class Zambian suburb that’s located at a well-trafficked but poorly maintained intersection between global influences and Bemba mores, the “I Am Not a Witch” filmmaker’s second feature tells the story of a Westernized young woman who’s forced to hold her extended family tree together by its roots during a crisis that leaves her wanting to rip the whole thing out of the earth with her bare hands.

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There are moments of beauty and resilience to be found amid the buried pain she uncovers along the way, but don’t be fooled by the heroine’s Zoom meetings with her British co-workers or her sad penchant for American life hack podcasts: The future might not have all the answers, but it’s the past that she won’t be able to forgive. Which leads us to another fascinating way that Nyoni manages to subvert one of recent cinema’s most calcified sub-genres: The protagonist’s family may be her greatest connection to her cultural memory, but their eagerness to forgive the past ultimately requires them to forget it.

While sharply critical of how even the most cathartic aspects of Bemba’s matrilineal society have been hijacked by patriarchal Christian values, “On Becoming a Guinea Fowl” resists the temptation to pit one against the other in order to score easy points. On the contrary, this dreamlike but deeply unnerving film aspires to a much thornier dilemma, and to a dramatic question so difficult to answer that Nyoni can’t even ask it without cheating: How do you find the words to speak up against a tradition of silence?

Silence appears to be a natural response to Shula (a stoic but trembling Susan Chardy). It’s her first reaction when she finds her Uncle Fred’s body lying in the middle of the road one night as she drives back from a costume party at a friend’s house. His corpse is down the street from a brothel, and below a billboard advertisement for a priest who promises miracles and deliverance. It’s possible that Shula hesitates because of how absurd it would look if she called the cops while dressed in a parachute bodysuit and a disco ball headdress, but the stunned depth of Shula’s quiet suggests a more serious kind of dilemma.

Your first guess will probably be that Uncle Fred did something awful to Shula when she was a child, and your first guess will probably be right. Less obvious to us — at least until Shula’s drunken cousin Nsansa (Elizabeth Chisela) shows up on the scene with a similar lack of concern — is that she might not have been his only victim.

In hindsight, that ugly truth may have been obvious to Shula as well, but it seems as if this is the first time that she’s allowing herself to acknowledge it. And so Shula finds herself reckoning with the full extent of Uncle Fred’s crimes at the same time as she allows her home to become a temporary shrine to his memory. Dozens of women from her extended family spill into the kitchen on their hands and knees — because “death comes crawling” — while their husbands sit outside and wait to be fed. Uncle Fred’s alarmingly young widow takes shelter in a room upstairs, only for the deceased’s ultra-militant sister to demand everyone to deny any charity to a woman who failed to keep Fred alive and in good health. What’s more, Shula’s aunt will insist that her family seize ownership of the widow’s house, and possibly her children along with it.

Nyoni illustrates the finer points of Bemba society’s mourning process through a harshly unflattering light, as Uncle Fred’s sister demands satisfaction from every potential moment of grace. So do the men in Shula’s family, who keep to the periphery of the film but still manage to exert their will (an extension of the pall that Uncle Fred manages to cast over this story from the afterlife). They sit around the outer ring of the isambo lyamfwa — a large meeting intended for mourners to clear the air between them and allow the dead to depart in peace — and turn it into a hostile takeover of Uncle Frank’s assets.

It’s but one of many ways that Shula’s family manages to pervert the beauty of their customs. Bemba culture believes that all people are born good, and that only their goodness should be remembered after they pass; a nice thought that might hit a bit different for anyone who can’t forget the deceased’s badness quite so easily.

Shula has all too much company in that category, and “On Becoming a Guinea Fowl” is at its most arrestingly self-conflicted as she discovers that her trauma is more widely shared than her frustration at keeping it secret. That discovery hinges on Shula’s younger cousin Bupe, a college student whose ability to attempt suicide one night and sport a body-snatched smile the next speaks to how reticent Fred’s victims are to disrupt the family order, just as it crystallizes why they were the ones he chose to target. “He’s dead now, so it’s OK,” Bupe smiles, as if she actually believes that, but we don’t need to see one of the movie’s clunky dream sequences in order to recognize her self-delusion.

Some of Nyoni’s techniques can be uncomfortably facile for the weight they’re meant to carry, especially those which betray a lack of faith in the Haneke-like icing of her framing, and its ability to mine real horror from the stuff of domestic sterility. The semi-frequent appearance of Shula’s younger self feels like an apparition from a lesser telling of this story, too neatly illustrating the presence of the past, while the climactic scene that makes sense of the movie’s title underlines the occasional disconnect between the potency of Nyoni’s metaphors and the clunkiness of their execution.

At the same time, however, several of her boldest choices are similarly crucial to the film’s ultimate power. The most breathtaking passage of all starts with the audio of Bupe’s would-be suicide video, only for a simple change in perspective to devastatingly slam home that the women in Shula’s family have been taught to say nothing because otherwise they’d all speak in unison.

“Stay quiet,” Shula’s mom cautions her. She insists that it’s for the good of the family. But how many people have to keep a secret before hiding the truth becomes more disruptive than bringing it to light? There’s no simple equation to calculate that, but “On Becoming a Guinea Fowl” invites Shula to do the math in its most affecting moments — to add up the ages of Uncle Fred’s children, or count the number of women who gather in the pantry so they can sing together as one.

These are opportunities for new hurt and much-needed healing alike, but they’re never sweet enough to disguise the cruelty that inspired them into being, never cathartic enough to cue the perfect indie pop song and send everyone home with some hardwon new strength. They burn like a flame that has too much kindling to ever be extinguished on its own, and the scarring power of Nyoni’s film ignites from Shula’s eventual realization that she would rather torch her family to the ground than let them forget what happened. After all, what is tradition if not a shared memory?

Grade: B+

“On Becoming a Guinea Fowl” premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release it in the United States.

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