It’s usually been a given that high expectations ruin the great chances of a good story to thrive. In many cases, it is not about the eventual worth and quality of these outputs than it is the standard set for them. Be it books, music, or film. Usually, and especially for film, the best works are the least anticipated, the one where less manpower, funds, star-power and anticipation have been put into. It might seem this is the situation Kunle Afolayan’s fantasy film, Aníkúlápó, falls into. The movie, riding high on the wave of anticipation and publicity in the weeks before its release, seemed to be a good enough watch. Could it have been better? Yes. Did it live up to the high expectations it set? For many, yes. For some others, it fell short. Afolayan had revealed that the movie, his third Netflix original in two years, cost him a fortune, one that, despite many odds, might prove to be worth the risk.
Aníkúlápó follows the very tragic story of Saro. The film, set in Oyo, depicts him as a wandering cloth maker. The story itself, it must be said, is steeped in the culture and traditions of the pre-colonial Yoruba people, and the story begins with the narration of death and the dynamics of resurrection as held by Yoruba tradition. The dead were not always buried under the ground but were rather deposited in the forest where they encountered the mythical Akala bird who asked about the cause of their death, and judged if they could return to life or had reached their time to die. We would therefore expect to encounter a whole village filled with once-dead people and zombies, but, fortunately we do not see those.
After the narration is done, we are shown the corpse – who we would soon get to know as Saro – in the forest, met by the Akala bird who asks him what caused his death. This sets the pace for the story we are about to see, and from which I digressed. Saro arrives into Oyo Ile and is welcomed by Awarun played by Sola Sobowale. She is kind to him and offers him food, a job, a home, and her bed. A powerful woman and one of the palace adviser, she gives Saro the chance to sell his clothes to the wives of the king. It is from this encounter that he meets the youngest wife of the king, Arolake, played by Bimbo Ademoye. She falls in love with him, and in an attempt to elope with him, Saro is apprehended by the king’s guards and beaten to death. He is dumped in the forest, and that is where we see the story’s beginning, but with a complicated, largely unexplained twist. He is awakened by the Akala bird, and then rescued by Arolake. Saro and Arolake then journey for weeks and find themselves in the village of Ojumo. There, Arolake suggests that Saro could raise the dead and make himself famous and wealthy. He agrees and becomes wealthy but greedy. This leads to his undoing in the end when he realises he can no longer raise the dead.
Anikulapo, a Yoruba word that brings to mind the possession of death and the ability to manipulate it, is suggestive of many things. It is at once fantastical and unreal. There is that braggadocio that reels from the word itself, and it is this haughtiness that comes with the protagonist of Afolayan’s film, Saro. It is the hubris that comes with the possession of a thing so sacred and so inhuman. The word, then, is a mockery of the ideal itself, a sleight of hand to the reality of things. Saro takes advantage of his newly-found powers stolen from the Akala bird by his lover, and turns himself into a god on earth. The film is didactic in that sense. It tells us what exactly can happen when a man extends his hands to the realm of godhood.
This didacticism in this Afolayan’s film is not in the least surprising. His films have that sort of quality to them, and he addresses unmistakably unilateral themes. Afolayan’s oeuvre is a school, and each film takes up single courses on the state of man and humanity in the world. He does this well with Aníkúlápó which bears much semblance to the temper in The Figurine (2009).
The characters in Aníkúlápó embodied their roles. Ademoye’s role as Arolake was a stellar performance. Kunle Remi’s as Saro was an intriguing act (even though I had expected the throat scratching habit to be more recurrent as part of his character trait). Sobowale also did an amazing job of playing Awarun. British-Nigerian actor, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, appeared, eventually, to be something of an underuse of the character of Oba Aderoju in some regards, predominantly since he starred in a non-speaking role. To a good extent, I understand that Afolayan’s reason for this might be that Kazim might not have been able to pull off the complex linguistic work that the more indigenous actors put in. Still, a less imposing actor could have done the trick.
The setting of the story was a plus for the film, and it added life to the largely indigenous story. The computer generated images were also spot-on. It was also a great idea for the movie to be done purely in Yoruba. Anything less could have truncated the trado-intellectual force of the film. It excelled in its editing, too. The colour grading and production was top class.
Where the film falls short is in its portrayal of the romance between Arolake and Saro. The sequence seemed too rushed, almost dream-like. The film provided no motivation for the love that set in between the two lovers. We encountered their meeting in the palace, the cliché locking of eyes, Saro’s walking in the bush at night, and their lovemaking immediately after. We are then plunged into an affair between them, one that took no time to mature. And if it did take time to grow, the film provided no indication of this in proper time sequencing. Saro is not in love with Arolake. He is rather in love with the ideal of her, the idea of sharing a bed with royalty, with power. That explains why he chose to acquire, too, the Princess of Ojumo. It explains Saro’s disregard of Arolake once she loses her royal sheen.
We also experience a show of nudity that proved to be completely unnecessary. The nudity could have served a better purpose had it been spread out in appropriate parallels across the film, or, at least, had a meaningful purpose for its use. However, it seemed that Afolayan’s choice in that scene served nothing at all other than for the pair to merely show their bodies.
Most importantly, for this impinges on the overall worth of the work, the crux of the story was delayed until halfway into the story. The script, it seems, spent so much time trying to build the foundation of the story that it forgot, perhaps, the story that was begging to be told. Viewers had to wait until the middle of the work to see the main story unfold. Much less time should have been spent building the story, and the bulk of the film dedicated to exploring the meat of the story which is Saro’s exploits with his powers and his eventual fall from grace. The first half of the film should have been cut halfway to allow the story breathe fully and effortlessly. What we had, then, is a movie that, knowing it had very little time left, rushed to reach its end.
Some other questions are left unresolved, and they are relevant to the essence of the story. For instance, we might question the fact that many of the villagers in Oyo Ile had come out to witness the punishment on Saro after he was caught, in only what seemed like minutes from when he was outed. It seems unrealistic that this could have happened in so short a time. And while this could have been helped by a simple time notation, we saw nothing of it. We could also question, despite the preponderance on prophecy, the validity of the powers of the gourd, and the apparent helplessness of the Akala bird to get it back from those who stole it. Many questions are left unanswered, and they leave loopholes in the fabric of an otherwise fantastic script.
Still, Aníkúlápó triumphs well over its flaws. Kunle Afolayan has created a brilliant piece that might journey down the annals of Nollywood films that live beyond time and remain evergreen. The story itself is timeless and reassuring of better times for the Nigerian movie space.
Nzube Nlebedim is a Nigerian writer, editor, journalist, and critic. He is the founding editor of The Shallow Tales Review and editor of Afrocritik. He lives in Lagos.