Touki Bouki / Redes
With a stunning mix of the surreal and the naturalistic, Djibril Diop Mambéty paints a vivid, fractured portrait of Senegal in the early 1970s. In this French New Wave–influenced fantasy-drama, two young lovers long to leave Dakar for the glamour and comforts of France, but their escape plan is beset by complications both concrete and mystical. Characterized by dazzling imagery and music, the alternately manic and meditative Touki bouki is widely considered one of the most important African films ever made.
Early in his career, the Austrian-born future Oscar winner Fred Zinnemann codirected with Emilio Gómez Muriel the politically and emotionally searing Redes. In this vivid, documentary-like dramatization of the daily grind of men struggling to make a living by fishing on the Gulf of Mexico (mostly played by real- life fishermen), one worker’s terrible loss instigates a political awakening among him and his fellow laborers. A singular coming together of talents, Redes, commissioned by a progressive Mexican government, was cowritten and gorgeously shot by the legendary photographer Paul Strand.
Edit (March 8, 2021): I had originally given the picture for Touki Bouki a 10/10 score primarily because of how impressed I was with the restoration work. Upon revisiting it, when looking at Criterion's 2021 Blu-ray edition for the same film, some aspects of the colour grading irked me a bit more now. Despite that, I was still very pleased with the restoration and the final picture. I've left the rest of the article, starting with the next paragraph, the same.
The first set of titles to be released through The World Cinema Foundation’s and Criterion’s partnership (collected with 4 other films in their box set Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 1) are Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki, presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1, and Emilio Gomez Muriel’s and Fred Zinnemann’s Redes, presented in the aspect ratio 1.33:1. The two films come from new restorations performed by The World Cinema Foundation and have been each encoded at 1080p/24hz and share the same dual-layer Blu-ray disc. This dual-format edition also presents the films on their own respected DVD discs, Touki Bouki on a dual-layer one, and Redes on a single-layer disc. The standard definition presentation of Touki Bouki on the DVD has been slightly window-boxed, though this still resembles the Blu-ray's presentation.
The purpose of the World Cinema Project is to help restore and preserve films from other nations that may lack the resources to do it themselves. From this I would have (maybe incorrectly) assumed most of these films would be in devastating shape and of course I threw in the Blu-ray of Touki Bouki expecting the worst. What I viewed instead was one of the more stunning high-definition presentations I’ve seen from Criterion.
What’s immediately striking is the extraordinary amount of detail in every single frame of this film. Both close-ups and landscape shots are packed with fine details, and I found sequences involving the water and its waves fairly hypnotic. The colour scheme on average is fairly drab, but there are bursts of reds, blues, greens, and pinks scattered around that are particularly vivid and rich, most notably in a hilariously decked out “American” car painted red, white, and blue. Contrast is brilliant and black levels are purely rendered without any crushing. The only mild complaint would probably be that there are tiny black bars at the top and bottom of the screen and I’m not entirely sure if this is a mistake or intended, but it barely registers while watching.
The DVD’s standard-definition presentation comes from the same one used for the Blu-ray. It’s also sharp with impressive colours, but unsurprisingly detail and depth is nowhere near the levels of the Blu-ray, though still pretty good for DVD.
The condition of the print is also very surprising. I noticed minor wear at the sides of the frame at times, which in turn fades the image at the edges, and there are a few other blemishes scattered about, but the print is in otherwise pristine condition, so whatever restoration work was done should be commended. No matter what condition the film was in, at 40-years old this looks like it could have been filmed yesterday. Just beautiful overall.
Of the six films in the set it should be unsurprising that Redes, made in 1936, is the roughest looking one, but in no way is the transfer any less impressive than the other transfers in the set. The source, a duplicate negative (the original negative is long gone) is littered with scratches, primarily fine ones with a few larger ones scattered about, and they rain through constantly. Pulsating, stain remnants, tram lines, and missing frames are also an issue.
Despite all of these leftovers, though, the restoration is still impressive. I suspect damage was far heavier than what we get here and large, glaring issues (other than the missing frames and few larger blemishes that couldn’t be helped) are few and far between. Thankfully the image wasn’t softened at all to hide the finer scratches, and this allows for an incredibly sharp image. Detail is high, whether close-ups or long shots, with clearly defined edges and perfectly rendered film grain.
The DVD’s transfer uses the same high-definition transfer and I must say I was rather impressed. It’s not as crisp as the Blu-ray’s transfer but upscaled it still comes off fairly staggering. Compression is minimal (though the film’s scratches and stains may distract from that) and I couldn’t detect any other artifacts. It looks very good.
Considering the film’s age and its near-forgotten status the presentation is a real surprise. Its source still shows its age but the transfer delivers as crisp and clean an image beyond what many would expect.
Original Score for Touki Bouki: 10/10
Redes (1936): 7/10 Touki Bouki (1973): 9/10
Touki Bouki's audio doesn’t reach the same levels as the video and its presentation, limited by age and I can only assume recording conditions (like the films of the French New Wave it has an off-the-cuff feel to it that probably caused havoc with audio) and equipment, is weak. Music, which would have been put in during post-production, sounds fine enough, but dialogue is flat, occasionally distorted, and at times very hard to distinguish. The track has been restored, however, so it is free of pops, cracks, or other forms of damage.
Redes' audio has unfortunately held up far worse than the picture. The track is flat and fairly distorted. Audio drops on occasion and there’s still some noticeable background noise. There’s also a few moments where the audio completely hollows out during a shot and becomes awfully muffled. The transfer itself does what it can, and manages to keep it mostly clean and free of damage. Unfortunately the source materials are too problematic and I’m sure this is about as good as it gets.
Touki Bouki (1973): 6/10 Redes (1936): 4/10
Each film in the set receives its own set of supplements. Each film also receives an introduction from director and World Cinema Foundation chairman Martin Scorsese. The one for Touki Bouki runs about 2-minutes and feature Scorsese talking about the film’s standing in African cinema. For his 3-minute intro for Redes, Scorsese talks about his first impressions of it and his amazement at how it shares a lot in terms of style with neo-realism, despite pre-dating neo-realism by a couple of decades.
Touki Bouki also features an interview with filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako who talks about the importance of director Djibril Diop Mambéty and his work, specifically Touki Bouki, while talking about its odd structure, the characters, and Mambéty’s style of filmmaking. It runs about 12-minutes. For Redes, Kent Jones also offers a brief 8-minute visual essay about the film. It covers its production history and how everyone became involved on the project. It also offers some information on its release and restoration.
Disappointingly the films don't receive a wealth of material (and this hols true throughout the set) but the handful of features we do get are, at the very least, good. A restoration, at the very least, would have been a good addition.
Supplements leave a lot to be desired but the restorations and digital transfers for both films are amazing.