The opening minutes of Alain Gomis' "Today" convey a powerful spectrum of emotions. Satché (Saul Williams), a young Senegalese man, begins a slow, mournful walk down a hallway, surrounding by teary friends and family. Seated in a room surrounded by his elders, Satché listens to the announcement of his imminent death at the end of the day. No specific reason is given other than "he has been chosen," but that provides ample explanation for the moving allegorical story that follows, although nothing match the complex existential confusion of the introductory sequence. Writer-director Gomis front loads "Today" with good ideas and then promptly runs out of them.
None of that makes "Today" any less perceptive during its first half, when it works as a beautiful paean to the desperation of premature demise. The downbeat eulogy is balanced off by a subsequently jubilant death march, as Satché wanders down the bustling Senegalese street and a mounting parade of his community sprouts up behind him.
The rest of the movie finds him paying visit to various major players in his world, from a seductive former flame to his wise uncle, listening and observing his world with heightened senses, which Gomis draws out through numerous audio-visual devices: Telling close-ups and a complex sound mix represent Satché's desire to luxuriate in a lingering ability to stay alive. Nevertheless, Satché is treated as a dead man walking, which turns "Today" into a kind of poetic ghost story.
Williams, an established hip hop/spoken word poet best known as an actor for his lead performance in "Slam," accurately conveys the character's continuing sense of dislocation as he faces the abrupt nature of life. With little left to say for himself, he usually just watches, and the abstract allure of his conundrum registers in his eyes. As his uncle–the man tasked with washing Satché's corpse once he passes on–explains, nobody ever finishes anything; "we just stop." Each moment represents Satché's attempt to grasp at his remaining life before the inevitable last scene.
"Today" services that goal with ample skill by retaining its simplicity and letting the fantasy go unquestioned. A title card announces the setting as "a place where death still warns of its passing," which is enough to keep the movie on solid ground for its first half," when it taps into the subjective nature of experience with a wide array of feelings. Whether Satché's death is meant literally or purely exists on an imaginary level hardly matters, although Gomis never compellingly builds on either possibility.
Instead, individual sequences stand apart from the movie as a whole. As Satché parties with old friends, tries to make peace with his grief-stricken wife and plays with his children a final time, the pile-up fails to gel, only sometimes registering on the profound level the material strives to achieve. When Gomis gets entirely distracted from Satché's journey by focusing on street protests his character passes by, the story immediately loses its energetic hook.
Eventually, the filmmaker finds a way back to his poignant starting point, regaining the touching quality of watching Satché watch his life. By then, however, "Today" has devolved into a series of vignettes, and Gomis puts no final effort into tying them together. Its flaws merge with its merits: The movie winds down just when it seems to have gotten started, much like the life of its solemn protagonist.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A healthy festival life awaits, but "Today" seems destined for a very small arthouse release and moderate returns.