(photo credit: PR)
Omar Sy, who plays the title character in Roschdy Zem’s Chocolat, is both a compelling actor and a true star, with an intense presence and charisma. He is handsome, but his appeal is far deeper than his looks.
When he’s in a scene you can’t look away from him, and he makes you care about whatever character he is playing.
Audiences around the world took notice of him when he played the streetwise caregiver for an older, upper-class man in The Untouchables, especially in his show-stopping dance scene in that film. He has gone on to other starring roles. He played an illegal African immigrant to France in last year’s Samba, and has begun appearing in Hollywood films, among them Jurassic World and The X-Men franchise. Chocolat is his most challenging role to date and he nails it, emerging as France’s most compelling young actor.
Chocolat is a fact-based drama, a biopic of Rafael Padilla, who became a huge star in Belle Epoque France as a clown whose stage name was Chocolat. Padilla came from Cuba, where he was a slave, and arrived in France via a circuitous route. Eventually, he finds works in a provincial circus, playing a savage to terrify audiences, in exchange for room and board. His life and his luck change when he meets an established clown named George Footit (James Thierrée), who sees the potential in his stage presence and physicality. Footit creates a clown duo with Padilla, filled with slapstick and charm. Footit and Chocolat are a hit, and are lured to Paris to perform for much bigger audiences and much more money.
But although as Chocolat he becomes a huge celebrity and success, Padilla feels alienated.
Most of the act consists of Footit beating him up, chasing him around the stage and humiliating him, and it hurts as well that Footit is paid twice his salary. As the only famous black man in France, he is recognized wherever he goes, but he has no real friends. He loves the high life, but spending his money – even buying himself a car – doesn’t ease his isolation. He develops a gambling and a drug habit. After an arrest for not having proper paperwork, Padilla meets a rebellious Haitian intellectual in prison, who convinces him that he can be more than a clown.
Encouraged by his lover, a widowed nurse who is utterly devoted to him, he tries to fulfill his new ambition: to be the first black man in France to play Othello. But this dream can’t save him from his self-destructive tendencies and the very real prejudice he faces.
The story of an oppressed black man, an illegal alien in Europe, who is persecuted and humiliated, couldn’t be more topical. But there are times when the points the film makes about race feel heavy handed, although they are clearly accurate. The movie, which is based on a book about Chocolat and news articles about his career, sometimes feels like a typical biopic, in which the performer starts sabotaging himself as soon as he achieves the success he had dreamed about. Part of the problem is that little is known about Padilla, and so the film lingers on the details of his biography rather than revealing his inner life.
The most engaging scenes are those where Footit teaches Padilla how to be a clown. This section of the movie has charm and humor, as well as a great affection for the circus tradition. It made me think of Colette’s novels and stories of theater and circus life in this same period, when theatrical troupes and circuses were places that drew together outcasts and people whose unusual bodies and talents made them unfit for ordinary society. It doesn’t hurt that Thierrée, who is Charlie Chaplin’s grandson, resembles his legendary grandfather, both physically and in his performing style.
But in spite of Thierree’s gifts, Footit’s character is not developed, and it’s unclear how much he is aware that the routines he develops humiliate Padilla.
In the end, the movie works best as a showcase for Sy, who is outstanding in every aspect of the role.