It would be tempting to pigeonhole the drama “Heart of Africa” as a Latter-day Saint movie, because it is — but it’s something more, and that’s the most fascinating part about it.
Drawing from true events, as well as the parable of the prodigal son, director Tshoper Kabambi smartly explores the emotional struggle of a man in the Democratic Republic of Congo who has a violent past and a hopeful future.
Gabriel Ngandu (played by Congolese rapper Moyindo Mpongo) lost his family to violence when he was young, and was raised alongside his foster brother Pierre (Ada Ilunga) by Mwabila (Elbas Manuana), a local revolutionary leader. Mwabila tells Gabriel he has a great destiny, and is the reincarnation of a famous warlord — a pronouncement that makes Pierre rage with envy.
Mwabila is ready to declare Gabriel his successor, in a tribal ceremony, when Gabriel interrupts in a panic, on the run from other villagers after a violent incident. (Kabambi, co-writing with Margaret Blair Young, dispenses information slowly, so it’s best to steer clear of spoilers.) Gabriel hops a river boat to escape his village of Tshuluka.
In a nearby town, Gabriel starts over as a beggar. He encounters a pair of Latter-day Saint missionaries, who offer him a meal and a place to sleep. In short order, Gabriel becomes a convert and volunteers to become a missionary himself. His mission president — a professor named Kabasubabu (Bavon Diana), who has a history with Mwabila — assigns him a service mission to help build an orphanage in Tshuluka.
Gabriel dreads going back, leaving his girlfriend Yvette (Amour Lombi), facing his jealous foster brother, confronting his past actions, and dealing with Mwabila’s expectations of him becoming a leader. But as a rookie missionary, Gabriel finds an unexpected challenge: befriending Jason Martin, a clueless mission companion from Idaho who could have fallen off the chorus line from “The Book of Mormon” musical. (Jason is played by Brandon Ray Olive, who portrayed Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in last year’s drama “Out of Liberty.”)
Filming in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kabambi achieves an authenticity of place that overcomes the pitfalls of a microscopic production budget. The details extend to the dialogue, most of it delivered in Lingali, the native language in that part of the world. Another telling detail is how some locals eye missionaries with suspicion, seeing them as interlopers from America no better than the Belgians who colonized the country for centuries.
The plot of “Heart of Africa” sometimes veers into the melodramatic and maudlin. Even then, though, the details of Congolese life and the tug-of-war over Gabriel’s soul make for a gripping experience.
‘Heart of Africa’
A Latter-day Saint drama from the Democratic Republic of Congo provides a different look at missionary life, and one man’s road to personal redemption.
Where • Utah theaters.
When • Opens Friday, March 13.
Rated • Not rated, but probably PG-13 for some violence.
Running time • 90 minutes; in Lingala, French and English, with subtitles.