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Falling Into Place

Carlos Vargas

Melody of Love (2023)

What this strange, quiet misfire has to offer is its unusual location – Addis Ababa. The concept of middle-class people living ordinary lives in an urban African setting is still somewhat unusual in Western cinema, but the good news is things are changing. “Melody of Love’s” writer-director Edmundo Bejarano is Bolivian, with no obvious connection to Ethiopia, and pleasantly uninterested in poverty porn or cruel stereotyping. The terrible trouble is he forgot to give his movie a plot, and left both his protagonist and his audience twisting in the wind.

Michael (American actor Elijah Reid, working mainly in English) is a jazz guitarist with steady gig work and a shrine to Michael Jackson in his apartment. But during a videochat with his mother (Kalkidan Abiy) she informs him it’s time for him to join her in Brussels. This leads to much moping; Mr. Reid strikes suitably moody poses as Carlos Vargas’s cinematography makes the most of Addis Ababa by night. There’s a lot of leaning against walls while thunderstorms roil in the distance, and a lot of emphasis on neon lights. Even when Michael is hanging out with his friends, they tend to do so in silence. For a movie about a musician, there’s a remarkable amount of silence.

The silence is because the mother’s request is the only reason Michael is going. Every possible part of his life is in Addis Ababa, and in moving to Brussels he’ll have to rebuild his career and social life from scratch surrounded by people he loathes. The two brief occasions where he tells his friends he cannot stand European entitlement are muted, made worse when one friend nods sagely and replies, “There means being there, here means being here.” Far out, man. There’s no lived-in experience of Belgian racism, or worries that his musical style won’t be appreciated by white audiences. Even when Michael picks up women by loitering outside the women’s toilets in the club, there’s no sense he’s enjoying himself. A single one-sided conversation causing this much drama is simply poor characterization and sloppy writing. Even allowing for cultural differences, both his mother’s request and Michael’s profound wish to stay needed to be teased out more, so both the ask and the answer had suitable heft. What’s worse is that, based on the glimpses provided, the life Michael’s leaving behind isn’t so great, only that it’s his.

It’s frustrating that Mr. Bejarano chose to ignore the obvious dramatic angles, but at least he made a movie visually interesting enough to make its world premiere at the Tribeca Festival. But that speaks to the broadening minds of the global cinematic audience that a Bolivian-Ethiopian-Belgian movie, funded by Argentinian and German producers, has its chance. It did not succeed, but at least it tried.


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