BY ORIS AIGBOKHAEVBOLO
Suddenly there’s a rush for vanity projects. Kunle Afolayan‘s forthcoming The CEO, with all of its stars including Grammy winner Angelique Kidjo, is possibly the big one. There’s the Mo Abudu project Fifty, perhaps the only one from a Nollywood outsider. Then there’s the film under review, the pallidly titled Road to Yesterday, which is both Genevieve Nnaji‘s vanity project and the actress’s vehicle (she produces, executively produces, supplies the story, and stars.)
The film opens with an establishing shot at an airport—aerial arrival—and ends with an overhead shot over a cemetery—subterranean departure. Apt then that in between Road to Yesterday is concerned with one of terrestrial life’s preoccupations, love.
Fresh from the UK, Victoria (Nnaji) is transported home by a friend (Chigurl) who insists on talking to the distracted returnee. The reason for Victoria’s distraction is revealed when she gets home: her husband (Oris Erhuero). He is sitting in the dark, singlet on torso and misery on face. His name is Izu—although the end credits have him pegged as Uzo.
The scene is quite the cliché and I wondered if the lady’s surprise at coming across a man when she turns on the light was a reaction to seeing a breathing cliché in her living room. She must have thought: this cliché has a beard and what looks like a full-body tattoo.
Anyway, something is eating Izu so he is rude to Victoria and company. The friend leaves. Victoria changes to a camisole. Izu then goes out to meet friends. This is how you know he’s of all men most miserable: No happy man leaves a Genevieve character, not while she’s wearing a camisole.
Hours later, Izu leaves his friends drunk and after a near death experience, decides to drive to his village. On the way what is eating Izu is revealed. Thankfully, in terms of how much the revelation is dragged, the problem is devastating. Izu should be throwing things not sitting in the dark. Using semi-linear flashbacks we are shown how the couple reached the stage where a trip to the village is considered palliative. (We are in the hands of smart people so when the couple winds up lost it is clearly a metaphor for their relationship.)
But Bako has it backwards. Scenes showing how his characters have come to be a couple are more engaging than their current turmoil. We are shown Nnaji channelling her inner Hollywood-maiden-attracted-to-new-man as the script orders an attraction between Izu and Victoria. We see Izu cheat, we see him caught. We see Victoria irate.
We also see that Erhuero is a static actor with body as inflexible as his voice. Each time he speaks it appears he’s doing so, not from script, but from scripture. Each time he moves…well for an actor he barely moves. His voice, no doubt attractive to a certain kind of woman, is misused and overused: it has the same timbre in sickness and in health, in love and in anger. The audience is stuck with it for 2 hours; pity Victoria who has to be with him for the 6 hour trip to the village. It might explain why she bears it all with a quiet dignity.
The unwanted uniformity of Erhuero’s voice is mirrored in the unwavering excellence of Nnaji’s acting. For better, Ms Genevieve is intent on making her own way within an industry that has refused to grow on her terms. For worse, her career looks set to be encased in a tomb of panache. The trouble here is while the encasement is good to look upon, nobody goes anywhere in a tomb. Nnaji the actress, as it stands, can no longer be imagined as playing anything other than a conservative missus. For instance, in a scene where she’s supposed to be letting her hair down, what she does is shake her head (as though she can’t believe this) and let her gown-clasped hips do a minor shimmy.
In this regard, her forebear is Joke Silva who found herself stuck in the years following her role as RMD‘s mother in Amaka Igwe’s Violated (1996). After that directors couldn’t touch Silva with a 10-foot pole having a young or wild role at the other end. That constraint led directly to her turn in 2014’s Folly, where she tries to play something unusual—a drunken matriarch. Silva got at least one award nomination for the part, but it was too little too late to show some range. Similarly, our Gene is set to leave the lamp, the realm of acting, and is well on her way to becoming that great emblem of respectable immobility: a monument.
So outside of its concerns with the nature of romantic betrayal, RTY is about stagnation. One within the film, the other in terms of a career—an exercise in irony for a film spent in a moving vessel.
At the base of it all is Bako whose career, on the up and up since his documentary Fuelling Poverty, may be set back, in artistic terms, by this effort, his debut feature. The auteur theory would have us believe it is his film, yet there’s a niggling question: how much creative input does Nnaji, as storyteller and producer, have here? As RTY moves on, it seems to cater less to a director’s singular vision than to the actress’s apparent desire for intelligence and style. Regular Nollywood has heart, at least to the audience that has sustained it all these years. By shunning it over the years, Genevieve shows she wants something more or something different. Which is fine. The lady deserves what she desires.
But has she been conned by own desire? Like several films released lately, RTY depends on a twist. But the intelligence of that twist is too clever by half, too sudden to be truly resonant. The film has its merits: Bako’s use of silence, a rarity in Nollywood; and anyone who has been in a lovers’ quarrel can identify with the accuracy of the waywardness of the couple’s exchange during the drive. Some of that exchange makes one wish the writers (Bako and co-writer Emil B. Garuba) had the confidence to leave it at that. If only for Erhuero who wouldn’t have to move strapped in with a seatbelt, transforming his general immobility into an asset.
Instead, we get an Intelligent coda and a teary denouement for this road flick. The switch from intelligence to emotionalism is so swift there’s no time to appreciate the intelligence and even less to rouse an audience’s emotion. Road to Yesterday is working with emotions that barely matter to the characters themselves—I was struck by how much the characters at the cemetery scene were uninterested. If a fictional death doesn’t matter to these characters, how can it matter to the audience?
Further: Is this the manner of stylishness Nnaji seeks—the same one Bako has refused to question?
The actress will have to decide. What is clear to the rest of us is the stylishness of Victoria’s clothes, right down to that camisole. Let’s call it the Empress’ New Clothes.
Watch the trailer below: