“Orisa” Review: More Tropes, Less Mettle

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Odunlade Adekola’s Orisa is the story of a proud king Oba Adefolarin (Odunlade Adekola) who, having been made mentally unstable by a coven of witches, has to defend his kingdom against a familiar marauder Komo-komo (Femi Adebayo) threatening to usurp his throne. Rooted in Yoruba folklore traditions, the film begins with a narrator and sage (played by Yinka Quadri) that tells the story of Oba Adefolarin’s fall from grace. The narrator, an aging man whose monologue is punctuated with proverbs and quasi-dramatic facial expressions, is often seen throughout the film seated, his gaze mostly fixed on the audience through the camera but drifting once to an attentive young man. It’s a narrative arrangement that faintly recalls grandiose age-old tales-by-moonlight circles that featured a storyteller in the midst of children.

The classical concept of tragedy involves a hero, usually a masculine character of noble birth, admirable qualities and a flaw; and an antagonist, whose intent and actions are against the progress of the hero. Over the years, this classical concept has been adopted in African theater and borrowed into the domestic epic films in Nigeria. New Nollywood epics such as Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman (an adaptation of Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman), Anikulapo, King of Thieves and Jagun Jagun have established powerful, heroic characters pitched against challenging antagonistic forces. Afolayan’s Anikulapo chronicles Saro’s rise from oblivion to a place of authority after which he falls from his lofty height due to a blossoming, uncultured pride in his newfound fame and power. Jagun Jagun, the most outstanding Yoruba epic production of 2023, has the protagonist Gbotija overcoming the sturdy antagonist Ogundiji in a rather anti-tragic fashion. But unlike Adebayo’s groundbreaking epic and Afolayan’s supernatural thriller, both of which offer some respite to the protagonist-hero, Adekola’s Orisa presents the downfall of its protagonist-hero Oba Adefolarin, leaving him with no room for redemption as he suffers the consequences of his pride. 

Two categories of antagonists are up against the King: supernatural forces (represented by the witches) and the arch-villain named Komo-komo.  With the former justifiably punishing the King by depriving him of mental well-being, the latter takes a more malevolent approach, plundering at will and attempting to take advantage of the King’s ill health. It’s also quite ironic that the same witches show momentary mercy, as they are instrumental to the annihilation of the kingdom’s greatest enemy Komo-komo. 

In Orisa, the filmmaker adopts in medias res, a technique in which the plot begins from the middle. When we first meet Oba Adefolarin, he is already at loggerheads with supernatural forces.  The conflict is similar to that of tragedies like Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Ola Rotimi’s The gods Are Not To Blame where the development of the hero is threatened by mystical forces beyond his control—a pointer to the role of destiny in the tragic hero’s becoming. Both destiny and  freewill compete for a role in the downfall of Oba Adefolarin, which makes the narrator’s historicization of the first-ever insane king a revelation of folkloric significance Then, as the film progresses, flashback helps recall the King’s abuse of regal authority, his most prominent misdeeds being the rape of Kokumo’s wife and indirect involvement in the murder of the innocent young man. 

From cinematography to costumes, characterization and music score, Orisa treads familiar aesthetic routes. The fiery performances of veterans like Muyiwa Ademola as Balogun, Femi Adebayo and Shaffy Bello as Oba Adefolarin’s first wife are noteworthy as years of experience culled from the pre-streaming era of the Yoruba-language industry come to play. But it’s almost impossible to watch Orisa and appreciate Femi Adebayo’s character  without the familiar scents of his villainhood as Ageshinkole in King of Thieves and Ogundiji in Jagun Jagun. To avoid such a parallel, the filmmaker should have made another actor play the role of Komo-komo.

While Jagun Jagun sets a standard for Yoruba traditional epics, Orisa lowers this bar again with its laid-back plot and a hero who relied more on the theatrics of the actor than on any character depth. One cringeworthy idea is that of  a mentally ill king still allowed to preside over the affairs of the kingdom. Even if the king is not removed from power, shouldn’t his royal authority be temporarily restricted until he recovers fully? Also, the conflict between Oba Adefolarin and the witches is not deeply explored. There should have been a backstory to account for more transgressions of the King to further justify his spiritually incurred suffering.

In Yorubaland, kings are considered second-in-command to the gods. This philosophy inspires the title of the film, as it captures the superiority complex of Oba Adefolarin to whom the “orisa” cognomen best applies. But in traditions, gods can be destroyed. So, it makes sense when Oba Adefolarin fulfills that ultimate, quasi-Oedipal fate.