Back in Africa
Don’t Europeans ever get tired of swooping down to Africa to exploit its peoples and natural resources? Apparently not. I Dreamed of Africa is based on the true story of Kuki Gallman (Kim Basinger), an upper-class, divorced Italian woman who falls in love with and marries the handsome adventurer Paolo Gallman (Vincent Perez). She then moves to Africa with her new husband and her seven-year-old son Emanuele (Liam Aiken) to seek a new life on a ranch in Kenya.
The movie hinges on this huge step, but never satisfactorily explains why Kuki finds it necessary to uproot her son and herself to go off with a man they barely know. The real Kuki probably had compelling reasons, but the screenplay, an adaptation of Gallman’s autobiography by Paula Milne and Susan Shilliday, never illuminates them. For example, regarding why she moves to Africa and leaves behind a close relationship with her mother and a luxurious life in an Italian villa for hardship and uncertainty, we must be satisfied with Kuki’s cursory explanation, “I have stopped growing.” The movie repeatedly presents such complex events and decisions in simplistic terms. As well, there are moments where poetic license might have been taken with the autobiography. It is impossible to take Basinger, and Eva Marie Saint as her mother, seriously as native Italians. Basinger makes no attempt to capture Kuki’s Italian roots—not even an Italian accent—and so her Kuki is a bland American whose coolness is hard to believe, considering that she’s chucked it all to move to Africa.
But the above are minor problems when compared to the film’s structural weaknesses. It suffers from uneven pacing, between the slow start in Italy and the rushed hodgepodge of tragic events that make the follow. The first “act” takes places in Venice and covers Kuki’s near fatal car accident and long recovery, her courtship with Paolo and their marriage, her son’s acceptance of Paolo as a new father figure, and her mother’s resistance to the move. Yet the story begins in Africa not Italy and we want to get there already. Once we do get there, the plot is moved forward by a string of misfortunes. Life on the couple’s cattle ranch is harsh and there are numerous disasters. Car accidents, sand storms, run-ins with lions and elephants, and violent encounters with poachers apparently allow that growth Kuki sought, but with so many events and so little reflection, it is hard to make sense of how they help her develop. And so, her house becomes the primary way to assess her personal maturation, for despite the complications, Kuki creates a home and garden worthy of Martha Stewart.
We have to rely on these external clues because we can never get to know the inner life of the characters because the dialogue is limited and superficial. It wouldn’t have to be My Dinner with Andre, but more conversation would be helpful. The script is replete with empty pronouncements and underdeveloped conversations, such as when Kuki must leave her son at a boarding school and she asks herself, “Why is love so hard? Or, when Kuki and Paolo rush to fight off poachers and end up arriving after the animal is killed, she cries, “What kind of people do this?” and Paolo replies tersely, “Butchers!” As if to compensate for this dearth of dialogue, the film offers Kuki’s voiceovers. Though voiceover can be an effective device for detailing a character’s interior life, it fails miserably here because Kuki doesn’t have anything meaningful or even pithy to say. As she surveys the landscape about her, she can only note, “I am alone. Yet I am never alone. I am surrounded by Africa.”
The film does work occasionally on an emotional level. Kuki’s struggles as a wife and a mother obviously resonated with the audience with whom I saw the film, as they were audibly crying and sniffling when Basinger pulls out the stops in a few crucial scenes Yet despite Kuki’s suffering, her stubborn belief that she can find an inner peace in Africa alternates between sublime and selfish. That search for peace costs her family dearly, and the film asks us to praise her tenacity and determination, implying that these qualities lead to personal development. However, it ends up inadvertently making us question the toll her “growth” takes on those around her, by showing some awful destruction and death.
Kuki’s final sentiment suggests that she has undergone some personal soul-searching: “Africa let us live an extraordinary life and then claimed an extraordinary price.” But really, what is extraordinary about Kuki’s life? Is fighting off a lion inherently extraordinary? Is ranching extraordinary? Did she really need to travel to a dangerous place to find meaning? What is the value of getting a foothold in Africa when bankrolled by Italian aristocrats? Interesting questions but ones this film doesn’t or can’t answer. It cannot even address its most extraordinary aspect how Kuki manages to be so clean and beautifully made up out in the African bush when everyone else is so dirty and disheveled.
The trite treatment of personal growth isn’t the only way the film disappoints. Its politics are disturbing, completely glossing over the question of European imperialism in Africa. Instead, I Dreamed of Africa depicts, once again, gallant white folks coming to the rescue of a lessor folk who can’t appreciate what they have. In this case, the rescuers are Paolo and Kuki, who attempt to save animals and drive Kenyan poachers off the ranch. The movie ends with an epigraph indicating that Kuki created a conservation foundation: this seems to be the film’s “proof” that she’s developed, yet it is tacked on as an afterthought.
Throughout, despite weak attempts to include Africans in the movie namely, a few glimpses of native Kenyans who keep house and help on the ranch this is a film about Europeans. The native Africans become just another element in the exotic landscape, allowing the film to sidestep the charged issues of racism and the legacy of imperialism in the 1980s. Paolo’s interactions with the poachers provide a vague look at this legacy. The poachers kill to make money for food, and Paolo, a hunter, kills for sport. Yet, when he finally confronts the poachers, he is so enraged at their actions that he tries to beat them. The film ignores the similarities between Paolo’s frequent hunting and the poachers’ killing, and asks the viewer to take his side by showing his “concern” for wildlife and presenting the Africans as “butchers!”
Even the cinematography capitulates to old cliches. Bernard Lutic creates a sweeping panorama of Africa, which, while beautiful, rehashes National Geographic imagery. All that Africa seems to be to these European characters is a compilation of grand views and occasions to control nature. There are never enough movies about strong, interesting women and this summer’s testosterone fests such as Gladiator, Battlefield Earth, and Mission Impossible 2 will be no exceptions so it hurts to see such a promising opportunity missed.