Film Review: Esohe is puzzling and clunky, but somehow it works

Esohe

Nigerian immigrant, Gary Barbar (Jimmy Jean-Louis) isn’t doing badly living and working in the United States of America. He has a decent job as a teacher, shaping the minds of young ones. His American girlfriend, Claire (Misty Lockheart) is generally supportive and he may be in line for a promotion soon. But Gary suffers these strange episodes where he blanks out and is transported to another life, sometime in Benin Empire of old.

These visions increase in frequency and intensity and at some point, become contagious. After a while, Claire begins to have trance like episodes of her own. Gary gets into trouble at work after a particularly severe episodes and he recognizes it is time to do something. He and Claire board a flight back to his home in Nigeria, a place he left after graduating University many years ago.

On the plane, Gary crosses paths with Esosa (Monica Swaida), a research student visiting Benin, Edo state to collect data. On arrival at the airport, Esosa is kidnapped by Johnny (Desmond Elliot), a local mob boss for reasons that are not quite clear. He takes her to a traditional priest for some rituals. Somehow Gary finds his way to her.

It would seem that in another life, Gary and Esosa were star crossed lovers, Ifagbai and Esohe. Ifagbai (Chris Attoh) was a deformed child of a renowned warrior, Akukuo Eghosa. On account of his deformities, Ifagbai is rejected by his father at birth and is doomed to be drowned in the river. A strange woman, Titilola (Toyin Abraham), cast away to the depths of the forest, finds the baby and nurses him to life, raising him as her own.

While running errands for her catechist father, Esohe (Jemima Osunde) is rescued from a coordinated jungle attack by Ifagbai who single handedly takes down all her would be tormentors. Ifagbai and Esohe draw close and a tender romance soon develops. It is of course doomed from the start. The crown prince of Ekenwan is interested in taking Esohe for a bride, as is Olotu, a warrior whose exploits on the battle ground demand to be rewarded. Schemes, plots and shenanigans ensue and it all ends in tears for everyone concerned.

Esohe does not unspool as a straightforward narrative.

The screenplay, credited to Bimbo Manuel who also plays a supporting role as Esohe’s catechist father is a complex maze and director Charles Uwagbai makes viewers work for their rewards. Not that the rewards are many, but it comes as a refreshing change to find a film that is not interested in spelling everything out for the audience. For the first half of the film at least, it isn’t quite clear what is going on as the narrative shifts clumsily between past and present, and among a wide variety of characters.

Esohe takes a playbook from Frank Rajah-Arase’s 2014 Benin empire love story, Iyore and dabbles in themes of reincarnation and the role of the supernatural in daily living. Esohe also mirrors Iyore in that it presents a view of the world as a cycle where things that human beings do come around eventually to haunt, if not immediately, then in future generations.

There isn’t a lot of money to throw around so Esohe makes use of what is available. The sets aren’t elaborate and the costumes could have been more detailed but the make-up work is pretty convincing. The actors, especially the principal Nigerian cast put in solid work. Not so much the Haitians and the Americans.

At some point, midway into Esohe, it begins to stretch on unnecessarily and some judicious editing would have shaved off redundant scenes in which nothing but dialogue happens. Esohe is made in the tradition of Nollywood films of the nineties and early aughties when a compelling plot was a prerequisite for telling a story. The rest of Esohe does not quite match up to the meaty story but at the least, the film is bound to keep you engaged.

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